BrainMost of us hope to survive into old age with our memories and brain function intact, in full cognitive health. If that is your goal, put exercise at the top of your to-do list. Research has proven exercise improves memory and brain function, and helps prevent dementia.

A 2010 study on primates showed that exercising regularly helped monkeys learn new tasks at twice the rate of non-exercising monkeys. Researchers believe this is likely true for human beings, as well. Strength training, and particularly exercising leg muscles, has a powerful impact on brain function and memory. In one study, twenty minutes of leg exercises improved long-term memory by ten percent.

A study published in the journal Neurology showed physical activity can slow brain aging by up to 10 years. Almost 900 seniors participated in the study. Ninety percent engaged in light exercise, like yoga or walking, or no exercise at all. The remaining ten percent engaged in medium to high-intensity exercise. CBS News reported:

[O]lder adults who reported either light or no exercise at all experienced a cognitive decline equal to 10 more years of aging when compared to people who were moderate to intense exercisers.

“The number of people over the age of 65 in the United States is on the rise, meaning the public health burden of thinking and memory problems will likely grow,” study author Dr. Clinton B. Wright … said in a statement.

“Our study showed that for older people, getting regular exercise may be protective, helping them keep their cognitive abilities longer.”

Earlier researchers showed that exercise promotes brain health by releasing hormones such as brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) from the muscles, thus encouraging the growth of new brain cells. This process is called neurogenesis or neuroplasticity.

Your brain’s memory center, the hippocampus, can grow new cells throughout your lifetime, even into your 90s, with a supportive lifestyle.

In one research study, mice who exercised grew an average of 6,000 new brain cells in each cubic millimeter of tissue sampled from the hippocampus. And while the hippocampus in humans tends to shrink with age, another study found adults who participated in regular exercise enlarged their brain’s memory center by one to two percent each year.

Exercise also helps protect and improve your brain function by:

Improving and increasing blood flow to your brain

Increasing production of nerve-protecting compounds

Improving the development and survival of neurons

Supporting preservation of existing brain cells

Exercise also reduces depression. It releases natural chemicals associated with improved mood, including endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, glutamate and GABA.