Physical Activity and Cognitive Function

Written by: Kayla Kazanowski, ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologist with Prescription Fitness (CLE, OH).

Over the last decade, neuroimaging has proven the ability of physical activity to decrease cognitive decline that is commonly associated with aging. The hippocampus, an organ found in the medial temporal lobe, plays a fundamental role in memory processing, specifically long-term memory processing. Neuroimaging specifically found that the larger volume found in the hippocampus is associated with better memory performance. Magnetic resonance imaging, commonly known as MRI, indicated that increased cardio activity is associated with larger hippocampus volumes.

Studies have proven that those that regularly participate in aerobic activities preserve their thinking and memory skills for middle age. In turn, this prolongs the onset of dementia that typically occurs with age. Specifically, those that participate in physical activity at least twice per week had a lower risk of dementia compared to those that did not. While becoming physically active is important at a young age, it is never too late to start. Even if one becomes more physically active in their 40-50’s they still reap the benefits of physical activity and delaying the onset of cognitive decline.

Leisure-time physical activity, such as walking, hiking, swimming, etc. that are often less structured and done for enjoyment, have also shown improvements in cognitive decline in those nearing their midlife point. As dementia is associated with an increase in body weight, such as being overweight or obese, it further proves the importance of being physically active in order to decrease an individual’s body mass index, or BMI, as well as their overall body fat percentage. An increase in body fat measures near midlife has been known to increase in dementia risk as one continues to age.