Dance, Garden, Play Your Way to a Better Brain

Three women standing together at a pickleball court
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Our skin and hair aren’t the only things that physically change as we age. Aging also shrinks the size of our brain, which can affect our memory and thinking skills.

But what if we could slow that brain aging process by regularly doing something active in our leisure time? Devoting time to physical activities like gardening, dancing, swimming, playing sports or walking may help slow down brain aging by as much as four years, says a preliminary study by Columbia University researchers.

In the study, which was scheduled to be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting next month before it was cancelled due to the coronavirus, researchers examined the brain scans of 1,557 healthy older adults who are part of an ongoing aging research project.

The scans showed that those who had the most physical activity had less brain shrinkage than those with the least activity. After adjusting for age, sex, education, race and other factors, the difference in brain volume between the most active and those who were inactive was the equivalent of about four years of brain aging, researchers reported.

“These results are exciting, as they suggest that people may potentially prevent brain shrinking and the effects of aging on the brain simply by becoming more active,” study co-author Yian Gu, M.D., an assistant professor of neurological sciences at Columbia University, said in a statement.

Gu specializes in the role of physical activities in brain and aging. In a previous study she co-authored, Gu and her colleagues found a link between more leisure time physical activity — meaning activities done in our spare time that are not job-related — and a lower risk of dementia.

To find out more, check out this Staying Sharp article on exercise and your brain.

“That’s why we did this study. We know brain size decreases as we get older. We wanted to see if greater physical activity in a person’s spare time can slow down the natural decline in brain size,” she explained in an interview.

In the study, participants (average age 75) were given physical exams, thinking and memory tests, and questionnaires about their physical activities. “We were interested in activities they did in their spare time, everything from gardening to taking an exercise class,” Gu said.

Researchers then calculated how much time and energy each person spent on those activities. Examples of low-intensity activities included walking, gardening, golfing, gardening; moderate intensity activities were things like bicycling, swimming, hiking; high intensity activities included aerobic dancing and running. People were grouped into three categories based on their weekly activity level:

  • Inactive
  • Somewhat active: either 2.5 hours of low-intensity physical activity, or 1.5 hours of moderate physical activity or 1 hour of high-intensity physical activity a week
  • Most active: either 7 hours of low-intensity physical activity, 4 hours of moderate physical activity or 2 hours of high-intensity physical activity a week

After examining all the participants’ brain scans, researchers found that the most active group had a larger total brain volume. More importantly, Gu noted, the increase was seen both in their brain’s gray matter, the area that processes information, and in the white matter, which transmits messages from the gray matter.

The study doesn’t prove physical activity prevents brain shrinkage, it just shows a link, Gu said, but it still “builds on the evidence that moving your body more often throughout your life may protect against loss of brain volume.”

What you can do:

Choose what’s fun for you. Do you prefer physical activities at home by yourself — gardening, listening to a podcast on the treadmill — or in a social environment like a Zumba class? You’re more likely to stick with an activity if it fits your personality and lifestyle.

Or mix it up. There’s no need to pick just one level of intensity. Go for variety — dance lessons, brisk walking (moderate-intensity is walking a mile in 13 to 20 minutes), ping-pong, a yoga class or try pickleball, a fast-growing game, popular with all ages, that’s a mix of tennis, racquetball and ping pong.

Just do something. Some activity is better than no activity when it comes to brain aging. Plus, doing something physically active even once or twice a week makes people happier than those who are never physically active, recent studies show. Like the ad says, just do it. Your brain will thank you.

To learn more about how being active benefits your brain — and being a couch potato doesn’t — check out these Staying Sharp articles:

5 Ways Your Couch Time is Hurting Your Brain

Exercise Releases a Substance Dubbed ‘Miracle-Gro for the Brain’

Exercise Might Just Be Magical Elixir for the Brain, Experts Say

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