Physical Activity: Keep Your Mind in Shape as You Age

Walking image There are many benefits to daily exercise, including improved cardiovascular ability and increased energy levels.

The Effects of Aging on the Brain

Researchers have not yet conclusively determined the causes of cognitive deterioration. Like the body, the brain undergoes changes during the normal aging process. These may include changes in brain chemistry, structure, and how the brain functions.

Research on Exercise and the Mind

It is unknown whether something as simple as regular exercise can slow progressive decline and make our brains function better.

There are a number of studies that focus on the effects of physical activity on cognitive functioning in people 50 years and older.

For example, a review of 11 studies found that aerobic exercise in people 55 years and older without cognitive problems can improve some aspects of cognitive functioning. The results showed improvement in motor function, cognitive speed, and auditory and visual attention.

In one large study over 18,000 women aged 70-81 years who were followed for a 2-year period. Researchers found that long-term, increased levels of physical activity was associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline.

In a study of older men, it was found that participating in activities even of low or moderate intensity still have benefits. However, men who started doing less physical activity had a faster decline in cognitive function.

Walk This Way

Walking is widely known to be beneficial for both the mind and the body. The following are some tips to walk safely:

  • Walk with confidence—Show that you are aware and in control.
  • Face traffic when you walk on the road.
  • Wear proper clothing so you can be spotted by drivers, especially when it is dark.
  • Carry your ID in case you need it during medical emergencies.
  • To stay alert to your environment. Do not wear a portable musical listening device and be aware of the people around you.
  • When possible, avoid walking alone. Walk with a friend or in well-traveled areas.
  • Change your route on a random basis and walk at different times during the day.

Other ideas for moderate physical activity include going up and down stairs (instead of taking the elevator or escalator), gardening, dancing, swimming, and water aerobics.



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Health Canada

The College of Family Physicians of Canada


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Atkinson HH, Rosano C, et al. Cognitive function, gait speed decline, and comorbidities: the health, aging, and body composition study. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2007;62(8):844-50.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI). EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated October 4, 2016. Accessed January 17, 2017.

Rosano C, Simonsick EM, et al. Association between physical and cognitive function in healthy elderly: the health, aging, and body composition study. Neuroepidemiology. 2005;24(1-2):8-14.

van Gelder BM, Tijhuis AR, et al. Physical activity in relation to cognitive decline in elderly men—the FINE Study. Neurology. 2004;63:2316-2321.

Walking safety. Runners World website. Available at: Accessed January 17, 2017.

Weuve J, et al. Physical activity, including walking, and cognitive function in older women. JAMA. 2004;292:1454-1461.

Last reviewed January 2017 by Michael Woods, MD  Last Updated: 1/15/2015