New research suggests that any amount of physical activity can protect your brain
Moderate physical activity has been linked to better brain health in numerous studies. Research suggests that people who achieve at least moderate levels of fitness have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life than those who do not get much movement in their day.
A total of 649,605 U.S. veterans, average age 61, were followed for nine years in this study.
The researchers accounted for other risk factors for Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia and one that affects 6.2 million older Americans. “People in the most-fit group were 33% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those in the least-fit group,” they concluded.
A treadmill test was used to determine the participants’ fitness levels. The fittest group did not consist of people who were athletic or exercised excessively. Walking briskly for 2.5 hours per week, or 20 minutes daily, was sufficient to achieve their fitness level. Brisk walking means you can hear your breathing, but you aren’t out of breath.
Alzheimer’s risk was also lower among people with moderate fitness by:
- 26% for the second-most fit group
- 20% for those in the middle
- 13% for the second-least fit
Study team member Edward Zamrini, MD, a researcher at the VA Medical Center in Washington, D.C. said “As people’s fitness improved, their risk of Alzheimer’s disease decreased — it was not an all-or-nothing proposition. So people can work toward making incremental changes and improvements in their physical fitness and hopefully that will be associated with a related decrease in their risk of Alzheimer’s years later.”
You can obtain fitness benefits not only from walking, but also from yoga, dancing, hiking, biking, or any other sort of movement that gets you moving and you are most likely to stick to.
This study, scheduled to be presented at the American Academy of Neurology this spring but not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal, was funded by the National Institute on Aging. As with other research on the topic, it can show correlation but not prove causation. It’s not possible to generalize the findings to the broader populace since the participants were mostly white men.
In past studies, including some that used brain scans, it was shown that physical activity results in the brain functioning more efficiently, slows down the shrinking of the brain, and lowers the risk of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease may have a genetic component, but it is not inevitable.