Brain Gain: Physical Activity Boosts Brain Volume in Older Adults

The benefits of being physically active are hard to ignore, but the evidence is still out regarding how much is enough activity in relation to brain health. In a recent study, researchers investigated how frequently and how intensely older adults should exercise to maintain a healthy brain.

Researchers recruited an ethnically diverse, urban-dwelling group of 1,443 adults age 65 and better (average 77 years) to undergo an MRI assessment. The sample was split approximately evenly across non-Hispanic white, Hispanic, and African American older adults. In this assessment, total brain volume, gray matter volume, white matter volume, and hippocampal volume were measured. Participants were also asked how often they engaged in light, moderate, and vigorous activity over the past two weeks.

Compared to no physical activity, engaging in low, middle, or high amounts of any type of physical activity was associated with greater total brain, white matter, gray matter, and hippocampal volume. This finding remained even after controlling for head size, age, gender, race, and education. Generally, each measure of brain volume increased with increasing levels of physical activity.

Physical activity guidelines recommend engaging in 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity, or 250 minutes of light physical activity. In this study, meeting recommended levels of moderate to vigorous activity was associated with greater total brain volume, while engaging in 250 minutes per week of light physical activity had a similar outcome, regardless of the amount of moderate or vigorous activity.

This study presented more evidence that physical activity is beneficial for brain health and that meeting recommended guidelines is essential. The difference in brain volumes for the most physically active compared to non-active older adults was the equivalent of about four years of aging. Neurodegeneration can have a significant impact on older adults’ cognition, and the findings here show that getting some physical activity is better than none, and even light physical activity is effective in reducing neurodegeneration. Additionally, this finding held across ethnic groups, underscoring the importance of physical activity for all older adults.


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Gu Y, Beato JM, Amarante E, et al. Assessment of leisure time physical activity and brain health in a multiethnic cohort of older adults. JAMA Network Open. 2020; 3(11). e2026506.

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