You can get active for your brain health later in life, study finds

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Even if you’ve never been physically active, you can start moving now and see benefits.

That’s according to a new study, which found that any amount of physical activity starting at any age is helpful for long-term cognitive health.

Researchers already knew that people who participate in physical activity in their leisure time have a lower risk for dementia and higher cognitive function later in life than those who are inactive, said study author Dr. Sarah-Naomi James, a research fellow at MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing at University College London.

What researchers didn’t know was whether there was a specific time in life by which a person needed to get active or if there was an activity threshold they needed to meet to see those benefits, James said.

The study, published Tuesday in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, tracked the physical activity patterns of nearly 1,500 people over the course of 30 years in adulthood. At age 69, the participants were tested on their cognitive state, verbal memory and processing speed, according to the study.

While lifelong physical activity was associated with the best cognitive results later in life, being active at any time to any extent was associated with higher cognition, the study found.

Even people who became active in their 50s or 60s achieved better cognitive scores when they reached 70 years old, James said. A surprisingly small amount of activity — as little as once a month — at any time across adulthood was helpful, she added.

“It seems clear from this study and others that small doses of exercise across the lifespan and starting young is very beneficial to long term health,” said Dr. William Roberts, professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Minnesota Medical School, via email.

Roberts was not involved in the research.

On a societal level, the findings show a need for more access to education that encourage skills and motivation for physical activity at any age, according to the study.

For people who have been active regularly, the results should be encouraging and suggest that their investment can pay off, Roberts said.

“For people who have never been physically active, or have gone through a period of inactivity, start!” James said via email.

If you are not exactly an athlete who loves to break a sweat, there are still ways to work some activity into your life.

To build a habit that sticks, it is important to set a goal, make a specific plan, find a way to make it fun, stay flexible and get social support, said behavioral scientist Katy Milkman, author of “How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be,” in a 2021 interview with CNN. Milkman is the James G. Dinan Professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

You can start slow, said Dana Santas, CNN fitness contributor and mind-body coach for professional athletes.

“Fitting in 10 minutes of exercise every day is so much easier than people think. Consider how fast 10 minutes goes by when you’re mindlessly scrolling social media or watching your favorite TV show,” Santas told CNN in a 2022 interview. “It’s not a big-time investment, but it can deliver big health benefits.”

Yoga is a great way to be active while relieving stress — and is easily accessible for all levels online, she said.

And walking outside or on a treadmill is one of the simplest ways to bring exercise in consistently, Santas said.

“Walking is the most underrated, corrective, mind-body, fat-burning exercise available to humans,” she added. “I walk every single day.”

Regular walks can be a great opportunity to multitask, if you use them to bond with family, friends and neighbors, Santas added.

If you want to boost the intensity of you walk, Santas recommended adding in harder intervals, weights or a heavy backpack.

“Walking for five minutes every hour goes a long way,” Evan Matthews, associate professor of exercise science and physical education at New Jersey’s Montclair State University, told CNN in 2021. “It doesn’t need to even be moderate intensity. Just move.”