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Flex your mental muscle
How physical activity revs your brain

Power to the brain

Recent research has questioned how helpful formal brain-training exercises, such as those found on video games and Web sites, really are for healthy older adults. Instead, you can get similar or even better results with these simple measures:

  • Keep in touch with loved ones and friends.
  • Learn new things, like how to speak a new language.
  • Volunteer with a community group or take a fun part-time job.
  • Get a hobby. Research your family history, do crossword puzzles or play golf.
  • Take a trip. Check out educational travel programs that cater especially to older folks, such as Elderhostel ( Or ask your local church group or travel agent for recommendations.

Activity is important whether you’re 17 or 70. Besides the obvious benefits for your body—it makes your heart and lungs work more efficiently, helps you control your weight, improves muscle tone, betters bone and joint function and reduces your risk of heart disease—activity can:

  • Boost your mood. When you work out, your brain produces endorphins—the body’s natural mood elevators. Plus, you may find that taking your anger or frustration out on a punching bag or walking off a bad day makes you feel better.
  • Help you sleep. Getting regular activity can help you fall asleep faster and deeper, and you’ll be more productive and better able to concentrate if you get a good night’s rest.
  • Make you smarter. A study of Canadian women over age 65 found that those who regularly engaged in aerobic exercise had cognitive function scores that were 10 percent higher than women who didn’t exercise. Being sedentary is a risk factor for stroke and dementia, and the better blood flow to the brain that comes with exercise may indeed be the link. Researchers also think that elevated blood sugar levels—a normal part of aging—can contribute to age-related cognitive decline. Activity helps keep blood sugar levels in a normal range.
  • Ease depression. While it may not replace anti-depressants, exercising for at least 30 minutes a day three to five days a week can improve depression symptoms and help stop relapses following treatment. It’s not entirely clear how activity lifts depression, but it could be that it stimulates endorphin release, helps release muscle tension or reduces the amount of the stress hormone cortisol in your body.
  • Take on pain. The throbbing pain of tension headaches can interfere with your ability to lead a normal life. But when you exercise, endorphins can help block pain signals from reaching your brain.

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