There’s no doubt regular exercise has a boon of health benefits. Exercise can support the heart, lower the risk of diabetes, keeps blood pressure under control, and helps maintain a healthy weight.
It does nothing for your brain though.
In a study published in JAMA, Dr. Kaycee Sink, director of the memory assessment clinic at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and her colleagues, came to the somewhat surprising conclusion that working out doesn’t help maintain brain function, even in the elderly.
Past studies found people with more active lifestyles had a less harsh decline in mental abilities. The theory makes sense considering the boost in blood flow and circulation to the brain would keep brain neurons nourished.
But when Sink and her team put the idea to the test with a group of 1,635 elderly, sedentary people aged 70 to 89 years, they found that exercise didn’t provide the benefits they expected for most people.
Randomly assigned vigorous walking exercise regimens, or health education programs that were interactive but not strenuous, the scores on a battery of cognitive function tests for the two groups were about the same after two years.
The idea that exercise doesn’t help the brain “flies in the face of conventional wisdom,” says Sink.
“But it’s possible that exercise isn’t beneficial in this group above and beyond any health education.”
That doesn’t mean you should cease exercise and slump back into your couch. While the study was over the course of a couple of years, maybe exercise over longer periods of time would show benefits to the brain.
“We certainly can’t rule out that exercise is something that needs to start earlier,” said Sink.
“Life long healthy habits are probably important.”