Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Best Brain Food May Not Be a Food

This activity will improve your brain health.

You, like me, probably want to “drop dead smart,” avoiding any adverse events or diseases that could damage your brain. But how can you keep your brain healthy, alert, and functioning optimally until the day you die?

Of course you have to feed your brain with healthy food, using sensible guidelines like these. That’s a given. But the best brain food may not even be a food. It could be an activity.

Is it learning a new language? Doing crossword puzzles? Having a mission in life? Calling a friend? No, although these activities may be helpful to longevity, the key to brain health is something else.

It’s regular exercise.

Evidence is piling up that suggests that mild to moderate aerobic exercise like brisk walking may protect your brain from the ravages of aging. Here are summaries of a few recent research studies that link exercise with a healthy brain:

1. Exercise and memory smarts. Exercise guru Gretchen Reynolds reports here that when a group of 120 older men and women followed either a walking program or were part of a control group, the walkers performed better on cognitive tests and regained volume in the hippocampus—a part of the brain responsible for memory, certain types of learning, and the genesis of new brain cells. A typical 65-year-old walker developed the hippocampus of a 63-year-old. My new goal: A youthful hippocampus!

2. Exercise and name/face recognition. In this study, after just 30 minutes of exercise, exercisers were better able to recall names and faces than volunteers who sat quietly for 30 minutes. This ability would come in handy in reducing those embarrassing I-know-I-know-you-but-who-are-you moments.

3. Activity and cognitive function. In a large Canadian study of elderly adults, those who were active around the house and garden, took short walks, and cooked maintained their cognitive function for the 2-5 years of the study, whereas the sedentary adults scored significantly worse on the same tests. Okay, I'm off to do the dishes right now!

4. Slowing cognitive decline. Another study, mostly of women in their 70’s, showed that cognitive decline, although an inevitable by-product of aging, slowed significantly in those women who kept active in the same kind of modest way as those in the Canadian study above.

5. Preventing dementia. After reviewing 130 papers, scientists from the Mayo Clinic have concluded that exercise that gets your heart pumping (aerobic exercise) may be an important therapy against dementia.

There’s lots more evidence based on animal studies, but since I have very few readers who are rodents, I won’t cite it here. And, naturally, more research needs to be done with human subjects.

“Brain health,” of course, is just one of many reasons to motivate yourself to exercise regularly. Exercise can also: improve your mood, strengthen your bones, boost your immune system, lower your risk for heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and colon cancer, control your weight by making your cells burn extra energy, reduce blood pressure, build muscle mass, help you sleep better, enhance your sex life, and more.

So, as the old song says, “Feed your head!”--with exercise.

More from Meg Selig
More from Psychology Today
More from Meg Selig
More from Psychology Today