Running From Cognitive Decline

There is no question that exercise provides tremendous benefits. It can ward off disease, strengthen the heart, lungs, and other internal organs, and significantly improve overall health. However, a mounting body of research shows that exercise can do much more than enhance physical health. It could also help prevent cognitive decline and dementia, making it essential for better brain health.

Cognitive Decline and Aging  

Aging is often associated with cognitive decline. Starting in midlife, the brain changes in subtle, but measurable ways. According to Brainfacts, the brain volume begins to shrink when people reach their 30s or 40s, with the rate of shrinkage accelerating around age 60. For many, these changes can result in a decline in cognitive function particularly in the areas of memory and learning. 

Boosting Brain Health

Although aging and brain changes may be inevitable, research shows that exercise can be a powerful ally in combating cognitive decline and memory loss. This includes dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Consider these encouraging study results showing exercise’s powerful impact on brain health: 

    • Regular physical activity can reduce inflammation1 in the brain, potentially lowering Alzheimer’s risk.
    • Exercise stimulates the development of hippocampal neurons2 and promotes the growth and regulation of new brain networks. 
  • Even moderate exercise can be beneficial and reduce cognitive decline3, including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Running to Rewire the Brain

For those who enjoy running, there is even more exciting news. A recent study published in the journal eNeuro found that running can rewire aging brains, helping to preserve memory functions. The researchers found that long-term running helps maintain the functionality of adult-born neurons in the hippocampus, the brain region responsible for memory. Notably, running also increases the number of connections between these neurons, potentially improving memory function. The implications are significant, as the study concluded that “long-term exercise profoundly benefits the aging brain.” 

The results of a separate study published on further validate running’s remarkable benefits, underscoring its ability to protect the brain from age-related decline.

Options for the Running Averse  

For those who are not fans of running, it’s still possible to get a healthy brain boost from exercise. Any form of physical activity can benefit brain health. Even moderate exercise such as walking can help reduce cognitive decline. 

According to a new study, women 65 years or older who engage in more daily walking and moderate-to-vigorous physical activity are less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment or dementia. Specifically, the researchers observed that with every additional 31 minutes of physical activity per day, there was a 21% lower risk of mild cognitive impairment or dementia. Moreover, taking an extra 1,865 steps daily was associated with a 33% lower risk.

Another breakthrough study found that research participants who were in the most fit group (defined as walking or biking for about two hours per week) were 33% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those in the least fit group.  

6 Ways Exercise Impacts the Brain

It’s clear that exercise offers incredible benefits to cognition and memory. Here’s how exercise works its magic on the brain: 

  1. Increased blood flow to the brain: Exercise elevates the heart rate and delivers more oxygen and nutrients to brain cells, optimizing their function. It also promotes new blood vessel growth, enhancing brain health.
  2. Neurotransmitter release: Exercise stimulates the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine which regulate mood, attention, and memory. Increased levels of these neurotransmitters can improve cognitive function and help with memory formation and recall.
  3. Increased production of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF): Exercise stimulates the production of BDNF, a protein crucial for promoting the growth and survival of brain cells involved in learning and memory. Higher BDNF levels can improve synaptic plasticity, the brain’s ability to adapt and form new connections, leading to enhanced cognitive function.
  4. Stress reduction: Regular exercise reduces stress levels by decreasing the production of stress hormones like cortisol, and increasing the release of endorphins, the “feel-good” chemicals. Lowering stress levels indirectly improves memory and cognitive function.
  5. Improved sleep: Exercise can help regulate sleep patterns and enhance sleep quality. A good night’s sleep is essential for memory consolidation, allowing the brain to process and store information effectively.
  6. Reduced inflammation. Aerobic exercise can reduce inflammation in the brain, improving cognitive function and protecting the brain from damage.

“The benefits of exercise are indisputable, “says PEAR Health Labs CMO, Dr. Amy Lee, “Regular physical activity is essential for everyone, regardless of age. Whether it’s running, walking, strength training, or any other form of exercise, it can have a powerful, protective effect on both body and mind.”

Aaptiv as a Resource

Aaptiv offers a complete fitness solution to help seniors (and everyone else!) get active, stay active, and improve their health and quality of life. Aaptiv Advantage is an all-in-one senior fitness & wellness solution designed to increase engagement of health plan members and drive lower medical loss ratios (MLR’s) for the plan. Aaptiv Advantage offers access to the largest Medicare fitness facility network in the industry, with over 25,000 locations that include many specialty and boutique locations not offered elsewhere. In addition, it provides AI-powered workout plans and on-demand fitness and wellness classes that address specific endurance, flexibility, balance, and strength challenges for seniors.

1. Casaletto, K, et al. “Microglial Correlates of Late Life Physical Activity: Relationship with Synaptic and Cognitive Aging in Older Adults,” Journal of Neuroscience, 2022.

2. Liu, Nusslock, “Exercise-Mediated Neurogenesis in the Hippocampus via BDNF,” Frontiers in Neuroscience, 2018.

3. Sofi, F, et al. “Physical Activity and Risk of Cognitive Decline: A Meta-analysis of Prospective Studies,” Journal of Internal Medicine, 2011.


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