Scientific research has shown that the brain’s ability to modify its connections, or re-wire itself – a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity (you can read more about this in our Active Mind pillar) – continues well into late adulthood.
Essentially, this ability of the brain to repeatedly rewire itself means it’s never too late to gain the benefits of being more physically active – whatever your age.
In fact, evidence indicates that people who lead inactive or sedentary lifestyles stand to benefit more from an increase in physical activity than those who are already physically active and take up a new exercise regimen.
One interesting study compared the brain health benefits of regular walking compared with performing regular stretching and toning exercises among a group of older adults.
- At the start of the trial, both groups had similarly sized hippocampal regions – the part of the brain implicated in memory impairment and Alzheimer’s disease
- After one year, however, the stretching and toning group showed about a 1.5% decline in the size of the hippocampus, on average. The researchers said this rate of decline was consistent with the average annual rate of annual decline in healthy people aged over 50
- People in the walking group, however, showed a 2% increase in the size of their hippocampus.
Therefore, this study suggested that starting a new exercise regimen later in life can have very real benefits for the brain.
Other research has found that the biggest brain health benefits are reaped when physical activity starts early in life – ideally as a teenager. However, women who were physically inactive as teenagers but who then became active in midlife had lower odds of developing cognitive impairment than those who remained sedentary into their later years.
Indeed, women appear to enjoy more brain-boosting benefits than men when they take up exercise later in life.
A study that compared the effectiveness of a 12-month moderate-intensity walking programme resulted in improved attention and memory in older women with mild cognitive impairment – whereas in men, only memory was improved.