NEW YORK — As we age, many people try to keep their mind sharp through reading and solving puzzles. A new study finds working out may help the mind just as much as it helps the body. Researchers from Columbia University Irving Medical Center say just 10 minutes of physical exercise a day in middle age helps protect the brain from decline.
Study authors say regular physical activity – such as walking briskly, running, or cycling – from middle age onwards can result in less brain damage 25 years later. Their findings, published online by the journal Neurology, suggest greater amounts of “moderate-to-vigorous intensity” physical activity have a “protective” effect on the brain.
“Our study suggests that getting at least an hour and 15 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity a week or more during midlife may be important throughout your lifetime for promoting brain health and preserving the actual structure of your brain,” study author Priya Palta says in a statement to SWNS.
“In particular, engaging in more than two-and-a-half hours of physical activity per week in middle age was associated with fewer signs of brain disease.”
Working out can limit brain damage
The study involved more than 1,600 people with an average age of 53. Each person attended five physical examinations over 25 years. The participants also rated their weekly activity levels once at the start and again at two later times.
Each person reported the amount of time they engaged in moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity, which researchers classified as none, low, middle, or high. Study authors then examined brain scans which measured a participant’s grey and white brain matter. The tests also revealed if a person had lesions, injuries, or disease in the brain.
After adjusting for certain lifestyle factors, people who reported no moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity during midlife had a 47-percent greater risk of developing brain lesions 25 years later compared to those reporting high levels of moderate-to-vigorous intensity activity. Lesions are small areas of damage in the brain.
Researchers looked to see how much damage had accumulated in the brain’s white matter. White matter consists of nerve fibers that connect different brain regions. The results reveal a connection between higher activity levels and more intact white matter in the brain.
Exercise fuels brain function
The team also examined the movement of water molecules in a person’s brain tissue. Participants who reported high moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity in midlife had movement that was more beneficial to their brain function than those who did not exercise.
“Our results show that staying active during midlife may have real brain benefits,” Dr. Palta adds. “In particular, consistently high levels of midlife moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity were associated with fewer brain lesions in later life.”
Previous studies suggest that that the cause of brain lesions may be inflammation or other damage to the small blood vessels in the brain.
“Our research suggests that physical activity may impact cognition in part through its effects on small vessels in the brain,” Palta concludes. “This study adds to the body of evidence showing that exercise with moderate-to-vigorous intensity is important for maintaining thinking skills throughout your lifetime.”
SWNS writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.