Exercising Just Once a Month Can Help Keep Your Brain in Shape, Study Finds

By Corrie Pellegrino - March 06, 2023

You don’t have to be a marathon runner or a triathlete to keep your mind in tiptop shape as you get older. In fact, a new study shows that being physically active even once a month, compared to being inactive, is associated with higher brain functions later in life.

The study, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, followed 1,417 adults over the span of 30 years. It tracked participants’ physical activity levels at ages 36, 43, 53, 60 and 69 and tested cognitive abilities at age 69. The result: “Being physically active at any time in adulthood, and to any extent, is linked with higher later-life cognitive state, but lifelong maintenance of physical activity was most optimal,” the study’s authors wrote.

Nate Parker, PhD
Nate Parker, PhD, Health Outcomes and Behavior Department

So what does it mean to be physically active? In this study, adults who participated in one to four physical activities per month were considered moderately active. Those who participated in five or more physical activities were considered most active. Both groups had significantly higher cognitive scores at age 69 when compared with participants who were considered inactive. Those who maintained physical activity at all time points across adulthood had the highest cognitive scores at age 69.

“Though the benefits of physical activity are widely recognized, we do not often get insights about how people maintain or accumulate these benefits over long stretches of life,” said Nate Parker, PhD, a researcher in Moffitt Cancer Center’s Health Outcomes and Behavior Department. “This study showed that maintaining physical activity throughout adulthood was associated with the best cognitive outcomes, but these findings also suggest that just ‘some’ activity is better than none when it comes to cognitive health.”

5 Tips for Getting Active

Parker, who studies the benefits of exercise during cancer treatment, shares the following tips for keeping your body and brain in good shape:

  1. National guidelines recommend getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week and doing resistance training to strengthen major muscle groups at least twice per week.
  2. Moderate-intensity aerobic activity can include going for walks or bike rides, active play with kids or grandkids at the park, gardening and other work around the house, and playing sports or active games with friends.
  3. Resistance training can be done using bodyweight, basic equipment or any object that provides some weight.
  4. People who have not been physically active should gradually ramp up their activity, increasing frequency, duration and intensity week by week.
  5. You don’t need to spend hours at the gym or on a treadmill. The best physical activity program for you is the one you can stick to.

No matter your age, you can find an activity that works for you, Parker points out.

“It is never too late to commit to a physically active lifestyle and start building benefits that may extend into older age,” he said. “The key is to sit less, move more and stick to it.”

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