Exercise and the brain: how aerobic fitness can keep the mind young

Does exercise keep our brains young? We know that there are many mental benefits of exercise but is there a positive link between exercise and the brain?

According to experts, yes. Neuroscientists think that physical exercise may be a critical component in keeping our brains nimble as we age.

Much as our bodies start to slow down and become less flexible in our 40’s, it appears that the same happens with our brains. In the same way we can work on our bodies to increase our strength, fitness and flexibility, by increasing our aerobic fitness, we can improve the way our brain works.  That means that an older older person’s brain “acts like a younger brain”, according to Dr Hideaki Soya, Professor of Exercise and Neuroendocrinology at the University of Tsukuba in Japan.

A study in Japan compared brain activation in young people versus individuals past the age of 40 and noticed quite marked differences. In particular, mental tasks that required problem-solving, decision-making, attention and other types of high-level thinking showed the most differences. These types of thinking skills involve the use of a part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex.

The study also tested the mental benefits of exercise. Fifty Japanese men between the ages of 64 and 75 who showed no signs of cognitive decline were put through a series of tests, including aerobic fitness as well as cognitive function. Those with better aerobic fitness fared considerably better than their not-so-fit counterparts. Strong evidence for the benefits of exercise on the brain.

Already established is the fact that in young people, the activation of the prefrontal cortex during the above-mentioned tasks tends to be highly localised. A young person’s brain tends to light up almost exclusively in either portion of the cortex.

With people over the age of 40 though, brain activity for the same mental tasks requires far more “brainpower”. You can think of it like this: instead of just one part lighting up, like one apartment in an apartment block, many units have to light up to complete the task – a fact that many over the age of 40 can probably all relate to.

Scientists have even given a name for this syndrome – Harold. And no, it’s a little different from naming a cyclone even though some people may find its presence a kind of natural disaster in its own right! Harold is a slightly less than literal acronym for “hemispheric asymmetry reduction in older adults”. “Harold” represents a general weakening and reorganisation of the brain and its ability to function as we get older.

But here’s the good news – aerobic fitness appears to help and provide a link between exercise and the brain. When tested, individuals who were fitter relied less on other parts of the brain, only requiring local activation to complete the mental tasks. In fact, their brains behaved similarly to those much younger.

Effect on exercise on the brain - Sage Institute of Aged CareThe study didn’t look at all the effects of exercise on the brain – focusing on aerobic fitness and not exercise habits. Nor did they try to examine directly whether exercise affects brain activation. Instead, they purely studied the level of aerobic fitness and its effect on cognitive function.

The most positive outcome from this test appears to be that by improving aerobic fitness, for example through walking or light jogging, we may be able to improve the way the brain works, bringing about a way of functioning that is similar to a younger person. So don’t just exercise for physical health – there is now strong incentive to exercise for mental health as well.

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Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan is the Academic Director at Sage Institute of Education. She oversees learning processes, teaching outcomes, resources and course development. A passionate advocate for bettering standards of training in Australia, she is currently writing her PhD thesis on defining quality training in the Australian vocational education sector.
Vicki Tuchtan

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