Just 4 Minutes of Exercise Can Keep Your Brain Young, Science Says—Here's How
A new study found that just a bit of physical activity was associated with larger brain volume.
As we age, one of the biggest concerns is the risk of cognitive decline. But while dementia affects millions of people, it's not a "normal" part of the aging process, according to the National Institute on Aging. So, even though it may feel like a circumstance that's out of your control, there are several steps you can take to keep your mind sharp. Even better, it doesn't have to be super-intensive. In fact, a new study found that just four minutes of exercise can help keep your brain young.
The study, which was recently published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, looked into the effect of moderate and vigorous physical activity on the brains of 10,125 healthy participants between ages 18 and 97 (average age 53 years). The study was conducted by researchers at the Pacific Brain Health Center (PBHC) at Providence Saint John's Health Center in California.
Interestingly enough, the 7,606 participants who reported regularly engaging in physical activities such as running, walking, or sports, had larger brain volumes, according to a Dec. 11 press release. This was true for participants of all ages—and for those who exercised for less than four minutes a day (or 25 minutes per week), per The Washington Post.
Cyrus A. Raji, MD, lead researcher and associate professor of radiology and neurology at Washington University in St. Louis, told the WaPo that investigators were curious about the effects of a "very low threshold of exercise," as larger goals of 10,000 steps or 150 minutes each week can be difficult to meet. They identified 25 minutes per week as an amount that "seemed achievable" for most.
Researchers were able to determine brain volume by using whole-body MRI scans and then using artificial intelligence (AI) to help compare this against exercise habits. Both men and women who got at least 25 minutes of exercise had greater volume—and while differences weren't enormous, Raji told WaPo they were still significant.
When looking further at the brain tissue, they found that exercisers had larger brain volumes in "key areas." This included gray matter, which helps with processing information, and the hippocampus, which deals with memory, per the press release. These tend to shrink with age, potentially increasing the risk of cognitive decline and dementia, according to WaPo.
"Our research supports earlier studies that show being physically active is good for your brain," Raji stated in the press release. "Exercise not only lowers the risk of dementia but also helps in maintaining brain size, which is crucial as we age."
And as Best Life recently reported, the study also found that taking fewer than 4,000 steps a day can positively affect brain health. "This is much less than the often-suggested 10,000 steps, making it a more achievable goal for many people," David Merrill, MD, study co-author and director of the PBHC, added in the release.
WaPo did highlight that the study is associational, meaning it's not clear whether exercise directly led to larger brains and how exactly exercise could be doing so. However, researchers told WaPo that they're optimistic about the results, suggesting that physical activity could reduce inflammation in the brain and also help create new brain cells and blood vessels.
Raji specifically said that exercise may facilitate a "structural brain reserve" to protect us when brains decline in size with age.
"With comprehensive imaging scans, our study underscores the interconnected synergy between the body and the brain. It echoes the knowledge of past generations, showcasing that increased physical activity is a predictor of a healthier aging brain," senior author Raj Attariwala, MD, radiologist and nuclear medicine physician, said in the press release.
Attariwala continued, "This research highlights an easy way to keep our brains healthy: stay active! Whether it's a daily walk or a favorite sport, regular physical activity can have lasting benefits for our brain health."
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