Here’s a startling fact: About 3 in 4 American adults don’t get the recommended amount of physical activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Even more sobering: Many adults don’t get any activity at all, aside from what they need to make it through the day. And as we age, more and more of us stop moving. Almost 23 percent of adults between age 18 and 44 are sedentary. For those 65 and older, it’s around 32 percent.
While you likely know that long-term inactivity weakens your bones and muscles, you may not realize that it can damage your heart and brain, too. This, in turn, raises your odds of dementia and heart disease, among other conditions, and can lead to early death.
But research suggests that getting exercise can help keep these organs healthy and delay or prevent their decline. And if you regularly work up a sweat over a number of years? All the better.
“You really need to think about ways to keep moving,” says Kevin Bohnsack, MD, a family medicine physician at Saint Joseph Mercy Health System in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Everything that increases your overall activity can ward off that sedentary lifestyle,” he adds—along with the cardiac and cognitive problems that can come with it.
How exercise benefits the heart
As you progress through middle age, your heart gradually begins to weaken. Its walls get thicker and less flexible, and your arteries become stiffer. This raises your risk for high blood pressure (hypertension) and other heart problems, including heart attack and heart failure. And if you’re sedentary, that risk goes up even more.
When you exercise, your heart beats faster, increasing blood flow and supplying your body with necessary oxygen. The more you work out, the stronger your heart gets and the more elastic your blood vessels become. This helps you maintain a lower blood pressure and decreases your chances of developing many cardiovascular problems.
It’s aerobic exercise—also called cardio—that really does the trick. Research suggests that consistent, long-term moderate or vigorous cardio training may be most helpful, though any physical activity promotes good heart health. “It can be anything from running to biking to rowing,” says Dr. Bohnsack. “Anything that builds up that heart rate.”
Getting in shape benefits your heart in other ways, too, by helping neutralize risk factors linked to heart disease. Exercise is associated with:
- A reduction in inflammation
- An increase in HDL (“good” cholesterol) and decrease in LDL (“bad” cholesterol)
- Maintaining a healthy weight and staving off obesity
And though more studies are needed, research increasingly shows that exercise can boost your heart health no matter your age. For example, for one small study published in March 2018 in the journal Circulation, 28 middle-aged men completed two years of high-intensity exercise training. Compared to a control group, scientists found the exercise reduced their cardiac stiffness and increased their bodies’ capacity for oxygen use—both of which may slash the risk for heart failure.
How exercise benefits the brain
What’s good for your heart is generally good for your mind—and research shows breaking a sweat on a regular basis can boost brain health in several ways.
First, exercise is tied to improved cognition, which includes better memory, attention and executive function—things like controlling emotions and completing tasks. It can enhance the speed with which you process and react to information, too, along with your capacity to draw from your past knowledge and experiences.
Getting physical is also linked to slower age-related cognitive decline, where we gradually lose our thinking, focus and memory skills. “In other words,” says Bohnsack, “if you like where you are, it’s a good idea to continue to exercise because that may at least help you retain your current cognitive function.”
And though the jury is still out on whether it improves symptoms, exercise may help prevent or delay dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. For example, one 2017 review in The Journals of Gerontology: Biological Sciences found that activity was associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s down the line. The link was strongest for people who purposely exercised in their spare time, rather than those who had physically active jobs. This suggests mental benefits may depend on your chosen activity, in addition to the time you put into it.
How does exercise do all this? Scientists aren’t completely sure. It’s thought that working out improves blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain, helping it function better. Some research indicates it prevents shrinkage of the hippocampus—the part of the brain crucial for learning and remembering things. Experts also believe it stimulates chemical activity in the brain that could contribute to better cognition.
Finally, exercise may help lower your chances of developing other conditions connected to dementia, including cardiovascular disease.
When can you start?
No matter our age, pretty much all of us can gain from exercise. “There is evidence to suggest that doing more vigorous exercise earlier in life is more beneficial,” says Bohnsack, “but it’s never too late to start because everyone benefits from doing some sort of movement or physical activity.”
In addition to its rewards for the heart and brain, working out:
- Boosts your mood and energy
- Helps prevent injuries
- Lowers your risk of other diseases associated with aging, like arthritis
- Helps you remain independent
Government exercise guidelines recommend that adults shoot for 150 minutes or more of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity weekly. Ideally, it should be spread across several days. Cardio activities like walking, biking, swimming, bowling, gardening and dancing are good options for older adults.
Your regimen should also incorporate some strength training, along with balance and flexibility moves. (Think yoga or tai chi.) They can help keep you mobile and reduce injuries—especially from falls, which are often catastrophic for older people’s health.
Ease into your routine
Of course, older adults should always speak with a healthcare professional (HCP) before beginning any new regimen, especially if you have a chronic condition, like heart disease. Your HCP can help you decide on a safe, effective routine attuned to your fitness level.
And remember: Even if it’s just a short walk, any exertion is better than none. “Taking steps during the day to do physical activities or movement can be just as beneficial as if you joined a gym,” says Bohnsack. To start, he suggests simple moves like doing squats at work or parking farther away from your office so you can log a few extra steps.
It may help to use an app like Sharecare (available for iOS and Android) to help you track your daily activity.
Whatever you do, Bohnsack says, you must decide if planting yourself on the sofa is worth your long-term brain and heart health: “As I emphasize to patients, ‘A rolling stone gathers no moss.’”