You’ve probably heard it over and over: It’s recommended that you do about 150 minutes of physical activity each week to lower your risk of health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. And if you, like me, read one-hundred-and-fifty minutes and immediately check out, never fear. Moving just a little every day can have a big impact over time, especially when it comes to your brain. Even short bursts of exercise—like scheduling a walking meeting or gardening during your lunch break—can go a long way when it comes to protecting your cognitive health as you age.
Movement, in any amount and at any intensity level, sends blood and oxygen to your brain, fights widespread inflammation (a precursor to many chronic conditions), and keeps your brain activity sharp and snappy. In the short term, that means better focus and memory, and in the seemingly far-off future, regularly moving your body can result in stronger cognitive function, and, ultimately, a lower risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Laura Baker, PhD, a professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina, tells SELF that when it comes to your health, staying active is just as important as eating and sleeping well—and it’s one of the best things you can do to protect your brain. “It really doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re moving your body. Just move,” Dr. Baker says.
Why your brain loves physical activity
Studies consistently find that regular physical activity is closely linked to a lower risk of dementia. While there’s not yet a proven reason why movement reduces the chance of cognitive decline—a term that refers to memory loss and confusion that can be some of the first signs of dementia—scientists have narrowed down a few potential explanations for the association, Heather Snyder, PhD, the vice president of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer’s Association, tells SELF.
The first is that exercise promotes blood flow throughout the body, including the brain. Research has found that reduced blood flow to the brain and stiffer blood vessels that carry blood to the brain are closely linked to a greater risk of dementia. On the flip side, when blood (and the oxygen it carries) readily and freely travels to the brain, it functions better. “Simply stated, the brain is fueled by oxygen and so increasing oxygen (think: aerobic exercise in moderation) has been shown to help maximize mental acuity,” Tamar Gefen, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist and an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, tells SELF.
Another leading theory is that physical activity promotes brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is a molecule that helps you learn and retain information. Higher levels of BDNF appear to help improve and protect cognition and cut your risk of dementia, says Dr. Snyder.
Finally, exercise can help reduce inflammation in the body, and experts believe this immune response is a major risk factor for dementia. Numerous studies have found that people with cognitive decline or neurodegenerative disorders, like Parkinson’s disease, have higher-than-normal levels of sustained inflammation in their brains. So, the less inflammation there is in your body, especially your brain, the more protected you may be against dementia.
How to move a bit more each day (and make the most of it)
There’s no precise formula for how long and frequently you need to exercise each day to lower your risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Some evidence suggests that doing just 10 minutes of physical activity daily can majorly improve your health. Ongoing research is exploring the question of the exact amount of movement that might benefit your brain most, Dr. Snyder says, but, for now, the key is to “do more than you are doing today.”
There are so many ways to go about this (ideas dropping in a few!), and if high-intensity workouts aren’t your thing, don’t sweat it. “It doesn’t have to be killing yourself at the gym,” says Dr. Baker. Her research team has done studies to back that up: In clinical trials, they found that all types of movement—including (but not at all limited to) stretching and balancing exercises, cycling, and working out on an elliptical—combat cognitive decline, says Dr. Baker.
If you prefer cardio, have a quick dance sesh in your office or do a speedy HIIT workout in your bedroom. If you like to take things slowly, squeeze in some yoga, gardening, or a short stroll (as few as 3,826 steps a day can make a big difference, research suggests). Even bowling made the list in one study connecting regular physical activity to a lower risk of dementia, as did household chores in another report.
If you’re tight on time, get creative. Park your car further away so you can walk a little longer to the grocery store, Dr. Snyder suggests, or take the stairs instead of the elevator, if you can. Dr. Baker recommends moving 20 to 30 minutes three to four times a week, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself if that feels daunting. Start slow and short, she says, and build up if and when you’re ready.
One way to level up your activity is to do it with someone else. “In addition to increased aerobic exercise, socialization has been shown to be correlated with lowered dementia risk,” says Dr. Gefen. Research shows that connecting with others (and even connecting with nature) is a powerful risk reducer when it comes to cognitive decline. Plus, if you make plans with another person, you’re more likely to follow through and stick with it (science says so!).
Find a strategy that works for you, Dr. Snyder says. Ideally, you want to enjoy it. If you pick up jogging and find it painful, or give stretching a shot and dread it the next time around, experiment with other activities until you find something that clicks. If you find a practice you dig but eventually get bored, mix it up. “It’s gotta be something you like doing,” says Dr. Baker.
Just move a little here and there—not only will you feel sharper, calmer, and energized, but your brain, however many years from now, may thank you for it then too.