Midlife Exercise May Have Beneficial Effects on Brain Later in Life

Once you’ve reached your 70s, will you look back and thank your middle-aged self for spending another hour each day on social media rather than jogging around your neighborhood? According to new research, the answer is no: you’re more likely to wish that you’d had more self-discipline.

A long-term study of more than 3,000 twins by researchers at the University of Helsinki found that midlife, moderately vigorous physical activity is associated with better cognition as we reach old age.

Twins are often used for studies because of their genetic similarities. Researchers found that the twins in the study who were active in their earlier years had a reduced risk of cognitive decline compared with their more sedentary counterparts.

Professor Urho Kujala from the University of Jyväskylä (Finland), who was involved in the study, said in a press release:

"Overall, the study shows that moderately vigorous physical activity, meaning more strenuous than walking, is associated with better cognition after an average of 25 years. This finding is in accordance with earlier animal model studies, which have shown that physical activity increases the amount of growth factors in the brain and improves synaptic plasticity."

The conclusion of the study was that vigorous midlife physical activity was associated with less cognitive impairment later in life, but there was no clear evidence that increased exercise had an impact on future cognition. In other words, vigorous activity makes a difference; however, wearing your knees out running marathons (unless you love running marathons) is not necessary. Think more about a type of exercise that would get your heart working without going overboard and you should be on target.

Find something that you can enjoy in your younger to middle years and stay with it, rather than going on exercise binges and then dropping off because you hate what you are doing.

The American Heart Association has some suggestions for ways that you can achieve the goal of vigorous exercise which focuses on a healthy heart.** Examples of "vigorous intensity" exercises:**

  • Race walking, jogging, or running

  • Swimming laps

  • Tennis (singles)

  • Aerobic dancing

  • Bicycling 10 miles per hour or faster

  • Jumping rope

  • Heavy gardening (continuous digging or hoeing)

  • Hiking uphill or with a heavy backpack

Because one slogan of the Alzheimer’s Association is “what’s good for the heart is good for the brain,” it seems that these suggestions would be ideal for most middle-aged people.

So — pick an activity that appeals to you and do it regularly. Keep in mind that while leading an active life is a healthy way to live at any age, if you are beyond middle age you can still benefit. As always, check with your doctor before beginning a new exercise regime.

Carol Bradley Bursack
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Carol Bradley Bursack

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. This experience provided her with her foundation upon which she built her reputation as a columnist, author, blogger, and consultant. Carol is as passionate about supporting caregivers work through the diverse challenges in their often confusing role as she is about preserving the dignity of the person needing care. Find out much more about Carol at mindingourelders.com.