Sian Beilock, Ph.D.

Sian Beilock Ph.D.


Exercise and the Brain: A Fit Body Leads To a Fit Mind

Exercise is good for the body AND mind

Posted Jan 26, 2011

Olga Kotelko is a 91-year-old Canadian Masters track athlete, with a world record-setting habit. Kotelko has been known to throw a javelin 20 feet farther than her nearest rival. And, at the World Masters Games in Sydney a few years back, Kotelko's 23.95 s 100 meter dash qualified her for the finals, not in her own age group, but in the 80-84 year-old bracket, among athletes almost ten years her junior.

As you might imagine, scientists have been quite interested in Olga because of the potential clues she may reveal about health and longevity. But, it's not just Olga that has caught researchers' attention. As the elderly become the fastest growing segment of the population, scientists are getting more and more savvy about turning to this group for hints about how to prolong an independent lifestyle. What they are discovering is that exercise not only has a profound impact on the body, but on the mind too.

Case in point, a few years ago, neuroscientists Stanley Colcombe and Arthur Kramer summarized the results from roughly two-dozen studies looking at the impact of exercise on the mental health of adults over the age of 55.

In the various studies the researchers looked at, people were randomly assigned to participate in either an exercise program or control group, the latter being comprised of relaxation training, weight lifting, or nothing at all. The exercise programs involved a wide variety of activities, ranging from walking to dancing to circuit training. Some were short (lasting only 15 min a session), others were long (up to an hour as session). Some programs lasted a month, while others were 6 months in duration. And, the men and women who participated came from a variety of backgrounds, education levels, and ages (55 to 70+). Despite these differences, however, one thing was constant across all the programs. Adults assigned to the exercise program consistently got their heart rates up a few times a week.

Both before and after the programs, the cardiovascular fitness levels AND cognitive fitness levels (i.e., thinking, reasoning, attention and memory abilities) of the folks who took part in the studies was measured.

When the results were tallied, the scientists observed something rather striking. Not only did people in the exercise group show markedly increased cardiovascular fitness compared to their control group counterparts, but these changes in body health were paralleled by changes in mental health too.

Before the programs, there were no differences in mental fitness between the older adults who got the exercise regimen and those that did not. After training, however, those older adults who exercised showed sharper memory skills, a greater ability to focus their attention, and more fluid thinking and reasoning abilities than those who didn't exercise. All of these cognitive functions are an important part of staving off dementia, being able to navigate your surroundings, and living an independent lifestyle in general.

Because keeping older adults physically active means that they stay sharper mentally, it doesn't take a large leap to realize that encouraging structured exercise regimens later in life may be one of the best ways to keep older adults independent longer. Recent estimates suggest that even a 10% reduction of hospital, nursing home, and home care costs associated with aging would have saved billions in the year 2010, a figure that grows to over $100 billion by the year 2020. Using exercise to keep older adults mentally fit means less burden on their families, the health care system, tax payers, you name it. Indeed, if the health care world made an exercise regimen a mandatory part of coverage - or at least gave big reductions in fees for those who participated - the savings could be as impressive as it would be to see Olga Kotelko run the 100 m on the track.

For more on the factors impacting our thinking and reasoning abilities, check out my new book Choke.

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Colcombe, S. & Kramer, A.F. (2003). Fitness effects on the cognitive function of older adults: A Meta-Analytic Study. Psychological Science, 14, 125-130.

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