Fitness Tips

Even Tiny Activity Tweaks—Like Taking the Stairs Over the Elevator—Could Protect Your Brain Against Age-Related Loss

Photo: Getty Images/Kilito Chan
Starting any type of new routine can feel overwhelming at first. There are certain things that can help make it easier, though, like finding joy in what you're doing, stacking new habits with old ones you already do consistently, and, possibly best of all, starting slow and small.

This last one is particularly helpful if you're trying to get into exercising after being inactive. It's a common misconception that you have to work out a lot in order to for it to be beneficial, when in reality, that all really depends on your goals. Yes, if you want to run ultramarathons, you're going to have to put in the miles. But if keeping your brain healthy is a major motivator to get moving, new research into the neuroprotective effects of exercise indicates that even small amounts of physical activity can help safeguard against cognitive decline.

The study findings are from the German Center of Neurodegenerative Diseases where researchers examined the brain volumes of 2,550 people ages 30 to 94, and determined that certain areas of the brain—including the hippocampus (AKA the control center for memory)—were larger in those who exercised. "Larger brain volumes provide better protection against neurodegeneration than smaller ones," Fabienne Fox, PhD, neuroscientist and lead author of the current study, told ScienceDaily.

Researchers found the largest bump in brain volume between inactive people and those who were moderately active, meaning that doing some physical activity versus none could have significant neuroprotective effects. Those benefits are not as pronounced in people who are already rather active and just up their exercise amounts—meaning that if you’re an already active person, more movement isn’t necessarily going to do much to move the needle.

"We understand this intuitively," says Barry Gordon, MD, PhD, professor of neurology and director of the Cognitive Neurology/Neuropsychology Division at Johns Hopkins Medicine. "If someone who runs the length of Central Park several times per day adds one more Central Park run, they're not going to get the same incremental benefits as someone who starts out never moving and then walks the length of Central Park."

Not that they'd need to go that far to see brain gains. "Our study results indicate that even small behavioral changes, such as walking 15 minutes a day, may have a substantial positive effect on the brain and potentially counteract age-related loss of brain matter and the development of neurodegenerative diseases," Dr. Fox told ScienceDaily. Here, indicate is the operative word.

What scientists understand about exercise and brain health—and what they don't

When I spoke with Dr. Gordon about the study results, he emphasized that it's important for people to understand the difference between correlation and causation. So for example, with this study, they determined that there was a link between larger brain volumes and people who exercise, but they didn't prove that exercising alone is what made people's brains bigger.

Generally speaking, scientists understand that it's plausible that exercise protects the brain from neurodegeneration, but they don't have proof—nor do they have a clear understanding of how, exactly, it works. "The relationship between sedentary lifestyle and neurodegeneration remains unclear," says Arjun V. Masurkar, MD, PhD, clinical core director of NYU Langone's Alzheimer's Disease Research Center.

This is at least partially due to the fact that testing the neuroprotective effects of exercise would take decades, according to Dr. Gordon. "Because that's how long it takes for neurodegeneration to have its effects," he says (which is why he recommends taking measures to improve brain health in your 30s and 40s—well before you'd potentially start seeing signs of it in your 60s or later). "And people don't wanna subject themselves to the kind of studies that would be necessary to find proof, nor are most of those studies very practical."

These new findings do, however, help to further affirm what neurologists already believe: "Research suggests that exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, is directly healthy for the brain by enhancing blood flow to the brain and stimulating biochemical pathways that maintain the functional and structural integrity of neurons," Dr. Masurkar says. "It has been shown that regular exercise can maintain or even increase brain size. While it is not known how exactly this occurs, some research suggests that aerobic exercise can initiate the release of growth factors that could potentially increase brain volume."

A helpful way to think of it, according to Dr. Gordon, is that exercise is kind of like SPF for your brain. "We all know that as the skin gets older, it shows signs of aging," he says. "But it's also known that sun causes additional damage. So you look at somebody who's both older and been out in the sun a lot without sunscreen; they have more damage than somebody who had the same genetic background, the same age, but stayed outta the sun religiously, or put on, you know, 400 layers of SPF."

The same can potentially be said for someone who's older and has been physically active regularly versus someone who hasn't when it comes to cognitive decline. “You can think of Alzheimer's disease, for example, as a combination of the changes from aging you can't currently control, as well as the changes from damage that you might be able to control,” Dr. Gordon says.

Easy movement swaps to start making now for better brain function in the future

At this point there's a strong enough correlation between brain health and exercise—and a large enough body of research to support it—that neurologists do recommend being physically active as a way of protecting your brain from neurodegeneration. And, probably more compelling, Dr. Gordon says he does aerobic exercise three times per week precisely for this reason.

But if you don't have time in your schedule to carve out for exercise, below, he and Dr. Masurkar share some simple ways to get more movement in your daily life in the name of better brain health. "Because people are so busy and exercise-averse, one easy way is to make an existing day-to-day task more active," Dr. Masurkar says. To that end, here are easy tweaks to start making today.

Swap 1

Bike instead of taking the bus or driving to run a local errand.

Swap 2

Get up for a short walk break every 30 minutes while you sit at your computer.

Swap 3

Opt for the stairs instead of the elevator.

Swap 4

Park farther away from places instead of looking for the closest spot so you have a little longer to walk.

Swap 5

Take long phone calls while walking or riding an exercise bike rather than sitting at your desk.

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