Physical Inactivity May Cause Your Brain to Shrink

Why should you get moving? Because according to science, a sedentary lifestyle increases your risk for colds, viruses and infections, heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer. And new research shows that people who exercise the least actually have smaller brains!

The medical journal Neurology links low levels of exercise in midlife to lower brain tissue volume 20 years later.

Lead author Nicole Spartano reports: “Brain volume is one marker of brain aging…and this atrophy is related to cognitive decline and increased risk for dementia…So it is important to determine the factors — especially modifiable factors, such as fitness — that contribute to brain aging.’”

Exercise to Maintain Brain Matter 

Color horizontal shot of two hands holding a caliper and measuring the word "mermory".

Scientists have proven that exercise increases oxygen and blood flow to the brain…activates the production of nerve-protecting compounds…reduces the buildup of dangerous plaques in the brain…and helps nerve cells develop and survive. According to the latest research, physical fitness also keeps the brain from shrinking.

Using data from the Framingham Heart Study, a long-term, ongoing cardiovascular study on residents of Framingham, Massachusetts, researchers investigated 1,583 people with no signs of dementia or heart disease at the start of the study. To determine fitness level, participants ran on a treadmill and researchers measured exercise capacity by the length of time one was able to run on the treadmill before heart rate elevated to a certain level. Twenty years later, participants retook the treadmill test.

Results indicate that smaller brain volume correlated with lower fitness levels. As reported in Newsweek:

“For every eight units lower a person scored on the treadmill test, the smaller their brain volume was two decades later. An eight-unit interval represented a reduction in brain volume that was equivalent to one year of aging.

The researcher also observed that participants who had an especially high heart rate and blood pressure during the most vigorous exercise had notably smaller brain volumes two decades later.”

A 2013 study profiled in Nature Scientific Reports showed similar findings. People who exercised maintained a greater volume of gray matter in the hippocampus—the area of the brain that helps control memory. Exercise also helps maintain gray and white matter in the frontal, temporal, and parietal cortexes, which help defend against cognitive decline.

The Stronger Your Muscles the Bigger Your Brain?

According to a 2014 study, also published in Neurology, middle-aged adults who scored higher on memory and cognitive tests were also the most physically active 25 years earlier. Strength-training exercise in particular may help protect against cognitive deterioration. Researchers found that of 324 female twins (ages 43-73), the twin with the most leg strength maintained greater brain function and fewer age-related brain changes than the twin with less leg strength.

It’s never too late to start protecting the brain with exercise. In fact, an observational study made up of 200 seniors age 70 and older showed that those who exercised the most had the least amount of brain shrinkage over three years.

Start small and increase physical activity by making movement a more frequent part of your daily life. Take standing breaks, and if you work behind a desk all day, consider investing in a standup desk. Research shows that walking more can help the brain stay healthy as we age. Take a walk around the block every morning and evening. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Once you make the conscious decision to move more, you’ll start seeing opportunities for increased daily movement everywhere!