Nicole D. Anderson

Nicole D. Anderson Ph.D., C.Psych.

Living With Mild Cognitive Impairment

Walking Away From Dementia

How exercise can improve your cognitive brain health

Posted Jun 17, 2013

Photograph by Patrizia Tilly

New research is highlighting the beneficial effects of aerobic exercise not only on our physical health, but also on brain health. Studies have shown that healthy older adults, older adults with mild cognitive impairment, and older adults with dementia all experience cognitive benefits from aerobic exercise. Moreover, seniors who are more physically active are less likely to develop dementia. A recent study in Vancouver, Canada of 86 women with probable mild cognitive impairment found memory improvements in women who did aerobic or resistance (weight-training) exercise twice a week for one hour over six months. These improvements were not seen in the group who was assigned to a balance and toning intervention, which suggests that you have to really get your body moving to see the cognitive benefits.

Before you think you will have to run marathons or swim across the English Channel to reap these cognitive benefits, read on. It’s easier than you think.

Ready, set, go?

While the benefits of aerobic exercise on physical and cognitive brain health are clear, you should first check with a professional if and how you should exercise, learn what goals you should set, and learn about the importance of different types of exercise.

Ready? If you have any medical conditions or are taking medications, it is safest to check with your physician before embarking on a new exercise plan. Certain health conditions and/or their medications may set limits on the type and degree of exercise you should be doing. For example, heart problems, balance problems, arthritis or other joint issues will certainly affect what type and how much of different exercise activities you should do. Play it safe and book an appointment with your doctor to find out what the right course of action is for you.

Set? Assuming that you have worked out a safe plan for exercise, what should your goals be? Most exercise professionals use maximal heart rate as a benchmark for determining targets. Your maximal safe heart rate differs depending on your age and physical fitness level, but a general rule of thumb is that you can estimate your maximal heart rate by subtracting your age (in years) from 220. So, if you are 70 years old, an estimate of your maximal heart rate is 150.

The World Health Organization (WHO) distinguishes between moderate-intensity exercise, which is between 50% and 70% of your maximal heart rate, and vigorous-intensity exercise, which is between 70% and 85% of your maximal heart rate. So if you are 70 years old, this would mean activity that causes your heart to beat between 75 and 105 times per minute, or 105 and 128 times per minute, respectively. You can buy fairly inexpensive heart rate monitors to help you determine your heart rate while you are exercising. Or do like your doctor does in your visit, and place your index and middle fingers just below your inside wrist, and when you feel your pulse, start counting from 0 for 60 seconds.

The WHO has set recommended levels of activity for adults who are aged 65 and older and have good mobility. At the bare minimum, they recommend two-and-a-half hours a week of moderate-intensity exercise, or one hour and 15 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity exercise. These are scary numbers for anyone who is currently a couch potato, no matter what their age! But don’t panic. Remember, these are your ultimate goals, not your starting point. You can and should start slowly. Listen to your body. Stop exercising if you feel dizzy, experience chest pain, or have shortness of breath and call for help immediately. With patience and determination, and some fun along the way, you can improve your levels of activity.

At the top of this blog entry, we said that you don’t have to run marathons or swim across the English Channel to reap the brain health benefits of aerobic exercise. You don’t. Almost all of the studies conducted with healthy seniors showing improvements in memory and problem solving, as well as increases in brain size involved only walking, starting at 10 minutes a day, gradually increasing up to 40 minutes a day, three times a week. Sure, you have to walk briskly enough to get your heart rate up to your target, but the point is that you don’t have to be an Iron Man contestant to reap the rewards of activity. Just get moving.

Go? So now that you are ready, and you have set your goals, what’s your plan? Above all else, have fun. If you are not enjoying what you are doing, you are not going to keep it up. So pick a range of activities to keep yourself from getting bored or burnt out, and match them to your personality. Join a gym if you like the energy and the perceived peer pressure it provides to keep going if that’s your thing. Go on hikes in your local park if that is more you. Coordinate with friends or neighbors for walks in your neighborhood or for power walks in the mall before the stores open. Hit the pool to do laps or movement exercises. Purchase step counters and have friendly competitions with friends or family members about who can move the most in a week. Sign up for dance classes to get in the swing of exercising. The point is that it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as it gets your heart pumping.

While the evidence is clear that it is aerobic activity that provides the biggest brain boost, it is also important not to forget the other kinds of exercise. Resistance (weight-training) exercise will promote muscle and bone health. Stretching exercise will keep you limber and flexible. Balance exercises will help reduce your risk of falls. You can find examples of how you can do these different types of exercises in your own home at

On your way

Exercise is good for everyone, but this blog is about mild cognitive impairment (MCI). If you have MCI, we hope that this posting has encouraged you to get moving and have fun. So try walking (or swimming, or chair exercises) - it just might lead you away from dementia.