Research shows exercise is beneficial at every age and fitness level

Women laughing together at an exercise class.

A comprehensive review of existing research has found that any amount of exercise is good, but working out in different ways throughout the week is the best prescription for optimal cognitive and body function. The study, published recently in the journal Neurobiology of Aging, also found a relationship between improved physical health and improved overall brain health. Regular aerobic and resistance training also reduces frailty and its associated hazards in older adults.

The study, conducted by Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose and PhD candidate Ryan Falck, looked at nearly 30 years of research on the effects of exercise training on physical and cognitive function and the connection between physical activity and cognitive outcomes. They found that overall, exercise improved both cognitive and physical health, suggesting exercise as a preventative intervention to delay aging-related cognitive decline and decreased mobility.

"The biggest benefit of exercise seems to be that it maintains physical function as individuals age, putting them at a decreased risk of falls," explained Falck. "Overall, we saw a clear relationship between a regimen that combines aerobic and resistance training over a prolonged period and reduced frailty and cognitive decline in older adults."

The study found that exercise has benefits for multiple aspects of cognitive function; while there was no statistically significant benefit to a single aspect of cognitive function, the team’s findings suggest exercise boosts global cognitive function, as well as improved memory, executive function, and processing speed. Importantly, the benefits of regular exercise are apparent regardless of age or biological sex.

"For us, these findings mean that exercise is beneficial at any age and ability," said Falck. "Regular exercise involving varied activities—whether that means strength training, participating in sports or exercise classes, or just finding ways to sit less and add movement throughout the day—may be beneficial in helping people live independently and healthfully for longer, with improved quality of life in older age."

Falck recommends following the American College of Sports Medicine’s Physical Activity Guidelines, which encourage adults to engage in at least 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic- and resistance-based exercise.

"Early intervention is key— if we can get people to be more physically active before significant cognitive impairment occurs, we may be able to delay disease onset or reverse mild cognitive impairment," said Falck. "The body and the brain is connected and what happens in the body impacts the brain. Even in older adults with less mobility, low-intensity physical activity is shown to be beneficial. Anyone can start any time to begin seeing improvements in thinking, moving, and overall wellbeing."