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Exercise and Socialization Improve Mental Functioning

By Lisa M. Davila, B.S.N., M.S.
September 6, 2023
a couple jogging outside together

Everyone knows the physical benefits of exercise, but did you know that working out leads to better brain health as well? 

"When patients ask me about the single best way to protect their mental functioning, exercise is always my answer," says George A. Melone, M.D., medical director at Wind Crest, an Erickson Senior Living community in Highlands Ranch, Colo. "Volumes of research show that people who exercise regularly have a decreased likelihood of developing cognitive decline." 

But if you're not one to hit the gym, don't stress. 

"Practically any type of activity can be helpful for brain health," adds Melone. "Whether you like doing crossword puzzles or socializing with friends while playing bridge, you're one step closer to having a healthier brain."

Exercise works

One of the main reasons why exercise boosts your brain is blood flow. Cardiovascular exercise works your heart and lungs, pumping blood and oxygen to the brain. 

"Higher oxygen levels in the brain lead to improved cognition and better overall brain function," says Cara Skrypchuk, senior director of Memory Support Services for Erickson Senior Living. "Being active also improves your mood, which may help lower your risk of developing depression or anxiety. Having either of these conditions increases your risk of developing cognitive impairment." 

Exergames, group video games that have a physical activity component, are a great option for grandparents who are looking to get some movement in with their grandkids. Nintendo Switch Sports - developed for the Switch, Nintendo's newest on-the-go gaming console - features games like volleyball, bowling, and badminton. 

Games and socialization

Research findings about the impact of activities such as crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and board games on brain function are mixed. In studies of healthy adults, games may sometimes improve cognitive performance, but there is little evidence that they can stave off cognitive decline. 

One study of older adults with mild cognitive impairment showed that playing board games improved their cognitive functioning slightly; however, the positive effects could have been related to the social interactions that occurred during the games rather than the games themselves. 

Because regular social interaction has consistently been shown to improve mood and help preserve cognitive function, it's best to do these activities with a partner. Spending too much time alone, on the other hand, tends to have the opposite effect. 

"Along with a depressed mood and lack of mental stimulation, social isolation increases the risk for poor eating choices and lack of exercise," Skrypchuk says. "These factors are all associated with decreased cognitive functioning."

Cover your bases

Give your brain (and body) the strongest boost possible by participating in activities that cover all the bases - mental challenges, social interaction, and physical activity. 

If you are increasingly forgetful or notice other problems with your thinking, see your doctor. 

"Treating a previously undetected medical condition or optimizing treatment of an already existing condition could be all that's needed to help you get back to your usual brain functioning," Melone says.

Erickson Senior Living communities offer ample opportunities to stay mentally and physically active with friends and neighbors. Find a community near you and schedule a personal tour to see for yourself!