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Cognitive benefits of exercise are lost after periods of inactivity

January 18, 2013

There's a growing amount of evidence suggesting that physical activity can be one of the best ways to help improve brain health later in life. Experts say that exercise is closely linked to everything from brain function to moods, but what's less clear is whether those benefits continue even after someone stops exercising. However, some new findings suggest it's important to stick with any healthy aging regimen that includes physical activity.

A team of researchers from Brazil's University of Sao Paulo looked at what happened once a group of adult rats went from regularly exercising to getting no physical activity at all. Despite the fact that they performed well on memory tests initially, once they stopped exercising, those benefits quickly faded. In fact, after only a week of being inactive, their brains were already creating fewer new cells.

"Brain changes are not maintained when regular physical exercise is interrupted," Gilberto Xavier, a professor of psychology at the university, told The New York Times. "Though our observations are restricted to rats, indirect evidence suggests that the same phenomenon occurs in human beings."

The findings strengthen the notion that regular physical activity is a cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle for seniors. It also supports previous research that suggests exercise is one of the most powerful tools in the prevention of Alzheimer's disease. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise may prevent dementia and cognitive decline largely due to the fact that it helps increase blood flow to the brain. Additionally, it may stimulate the creation of certain chemicals that can help prevent some of the changes in the brain that are associated with growing older such as memory loss and declining learning skills.