Why is Physical Activity Important? New Study Shows Exercise May Protect the Brain and Preserve Mobility in Old Age

Why is Physical Activity Important? New Study Shows Exercise May Protect the Brain and Preserve Mobility in Old AgeI used to believe that exercise was simply necessary to keep my body in shape and to ward off extra pounds. But now, more than ever, I realize that the benefits of exercise expand far beyond weight loss and maintaining muscle tone. Many of these additional benefits have become far more important to me than just staying in good physical shape.

Now, my motivation to exercise comes from knowing that regular physical activity reduces my risk of diseases like cancer and cardiovascular disease, helps fight off depression, and protects my memory from cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. And now I can add to this motivational list yet another reason. Physical activity now, when I am in my twenties, as well as when I am older, will help to keep me mobile and active far into old age.

Mobility is essential for older people, allowing independence, autonomy, and full function in daily activities. Things like impaired walking performance can even be a predictor of morbidity.[1] For a healthy and long life, maintaining mobility is a must.

Physical activity during youth and midlife predicts mobility later on

Several studies have indentified a link between physical activity levels earlier in life to mobility in older age. For example, one study on 679 participants (average age of 80) showed that people who regularly exercised from ages 20 to 64 had significantly better mobility in older age. Those who had been active previously were more likely to be able to walk 400 meters independently, to have better grip strength, and to have faster walking speed.[2]

Why is physical activity important for older people?

Staying active into old age also helps improve strength, balance, and flexibility. In one study, a multi-component training program consisting of walking, running, strength training, aerobic activities, and various exercises improved balance, strength, flexibility, and more in a group of older adults.[3] Running can be particular effective in maintaining mobility. To learn more, read The Benefits of Walking Vs. Running as You Age: Why You Should Run More.

Exercise and the brain

Keeping up with regular exercise not only keeps your muscles strong and your body conditioned, but it also might affect the brain directly. As we age, the brain begins to change. One of the normal age-related change that occurs is damage to areas of the brain related to motor function. These small areas of brain damage are called white matter hyperintensities (WMHs), and they increase as we get older. WMHs are associated with impaired motor function and mobility.[4]

But physical activity may protect against the deleterious effects of this kind of common brain damage. A new study published in the journal Neurology looked at WMHs, physical activity, and mobility in 167 adults living in community housing. They found that those participants who exercised the most regularly did not seem to be show motor impairments normally associated with WMHs; higher levels of WMHs did not seem to affect people who exercised regularly. However, participants who exercised the least showed significant motor function problems associated with their WMHs levels. In other words, physical activity seems to preserve mobility, even if the normal age-related brain damage is present.[4]

Physical activity did not stop the brain from developing WMH; instead, it seems to protect motor function from impairment due to this kind of brain damage. The researchers don’t know exactly how exercise does this, but they believe it may have to do with the increase of protective compounds such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), among others.[4]

Stay active in whatever way you can

Physical activity does not have to mean running marathons, hitting the gym for intense workouts each day, or anything too exotic or demanding. Just try to get as much movement in each day as you can, in whatever form works for you. A 30-minute daily walk can do the trick, as can regular classes in dance or yoga. Remember: the more you move now, the more you’ll be able to keep moving long into old age.

Share your experience

What is your favorite way to stay active? How do you get regular physical activity into your daily routine? Share your tips in the comments section below.


[1] PLoS One. 2014 Nov 20;9(11):e113471.

[2] J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2012 Aug;67(8):905-10.

[3] Rehabil Nurs. 2013 Jan-Feb;38(1):37-47.

[4] Neurology. 2015 Mar 11. [Epub ahead of print]

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