Can Exercise and Daily Activity Improve Brain Health?

Can Exercise and Daily Activity Improve Brain Health?

Can Exercise and Daily Activity Improve Brain Health?
Professor Greg Whyte OBE


How is exercise and brain health linked?


Exercise has been shown to be effective in improving memory and thinking. Exercise reduces insulin resistance and inflammation, and stimulates the release of growth factors in the brain which directly affect the health of existing brain cells and the appearance and survival of new brain cells (associated with the release of Brain-Derived Neutrotrophic Factor, BDNF), as well as leading to the growth of new blood vessels. Furthermore, exercise has a positive impact on mood, reduces depression (associated with the release of dopamine and other ‘happy hormones’), stress and anxiety, and improves sleep, all of which have a positive effect on brain health. Interestingly, exercise has also been shown to increase the size of the prefrontal and medial temporal cortex, areas of the brain which control thinking and memory. In addition to improving the health of the healthy brain, exercise has been shown to have a positive impact on a range of brain diseases including Dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.


How much exercise on a daily basis should I be doing?

It is unclear how much exercise is enough however, aiming to achieve the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines of 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on most days of the week (target = 150 minutes per week) will improve brain health. However, as I always say, anything is better than nothing so, do more today than you did yesterday and you will be on the right path to improving your brain health.


What type of exercise? Should it include some sort of thinking i.e. standing on one leg?

The vast majority of research has investigated the role of aerobic exercise (i.e. walking, cycling, swimming etc.). Including exercise which requires complex movement patterns (i.e. skill) will reduce the impact of cognitive and functional decline, common with ageing. Team sports (i.e. netball, football etc.) and racket sports (i.e. tennis, table tennis, badminton, squash etc.) combine skill, aerobic and strength exercise for a triple whammy which, together with the associated social interaction, will impact all facets of health (physical, mental, emotional and social).


How can I make exercise fit into my daily life?

Making exercise a habit rather than a chore is the key to long-term success. In the first instance, select exercise that you enjoy; having fun will keep you going long after the initial motivation to become more active has passed. To increase the fun element, exercise with friends or as part of a class. Having an exercise buddy or being part of the group improves enjoyment and motivation. Try something new and challenging; mastering a new skill provides all the motivation you need to maintain your activity. Planning your exercise and putting it in your diary (and your family’s diary) means you will create dedicated, ring-fenced time for your exercise. If time is your enemy, build exercise into your daily life, walk rather than drive, take the stairs rather than the lift, have walking/active meetings with colleagues and friends rather than sitting down.


If I have the start of dementia can exercise reverse the condition or is it too late?

Dementia is a syndrome characterised by memory impairment and functional decline. About 60 % of cases of dementia in developed countries are caused by Alzheimer’s disease, and about 20 % are vascular dementia. The prevalence of dementia in similar in men and women and increases with age, affecting older people to a much greater extent than younger people. Drug treatments for dementia are limited however, exercise offers a non-pharmacological treatment for dementia. Research demonstrates encouraging evidence for the effectiveness of physical activity in improving cognition and other outcomes in people with dementia. Whilst prevention is better than cure, it is never too late to benefit from being more active. Whilst exercise/physical activity may be more challenging in late stage dementia, there are significant gains to be made for those suffering with mild to moderate dementia. In addition to improvement in brain health, increased physical activity will result in improvements in all areas of health (physical, mental, emotional and social).



Dementia is associated with:

(a) Memory impairment with cognitive disturbance in at least one of the following domains: aphasia (language impairment), apraxia (motor impairment), agnosia (impairment of object recognition) or executive functioning (planning, sequencing, abstracting); and

(b) Functional decline: increasing impairment in functional ability (social, occupational, personal/self-care) related to cognitive deficits.




Forbes D, Forbes SC, Blake CM, Thiessen EJ, Forbes S. Exercise programs for people with dementia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015;4:CD006489.