Senior’s Health: Can Exercise Improve Memory?

  •   March 7, 2019
  •  Nancy Littke, PT

As we get older, many of us will notice changes with our memory, have trouble thinking of a specific word that is commonly used, or find we take longer to process new ideas or problem solve new challenges. Over the years there has been a lot of information available about physical exercise to improve overall physical function, prevent or manage chronic disease, recover from injury and diseases, and prevent falls in the older adult population. However, did you know that physical exercise and a more active lifestyle can help older adults maintain or improve memory, word finding and problem solving, and may even reverse some of these changes often associated with aging?1

What is cognition?

Cognition is the process of thinking. This includes the ability to think, read, learn, remember, problem solve and pay attention to what is happening around you.2 All these skills are important to help you function daily. Cognitive impairment occurs when one or more of these skills are altered leading to challenges in your ability to think and function independently.

Cognitive decline is commonly associated with aging and often results in slower thinking and problem solving, difficulty finding a word, and some issues with memory of recent events.3

Cognitive impairment, including dementia, means an individual is living with cognitive changes that are greater than what is typical within the healthy aging population.3 Cognitive impairment affects approximately 47 million people worldwide and is now the leading cause of disability in older adults.3 This impacts individuals as well as their families by significantly reducing the ability to live independently, decreasing quality of life, and affecting overall daily functional abilities.3

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a term that is often used when an individual presents with one or more of the following impairments: memory loss, problems with language or decreased ability to problem solve. The cognitive difficulties related to MCI are greater than what would be considered typical decline for a given age, but not as severe as the changes seen with other cognitive impairments as normal daily activities of living are not as greatly affected.4

What does the research say?

The good news is that current research suggests older adults can lower their risk of Alzheimer Disease (AD) and slow the rate of age-related cognitive decline by increasing total daily physical activity.2,3 The evidence suggests that increasing your activity levels at any age, regardless of your current cognitive ability, is associated with positive results.5

Your brain can “rewire” itself after damage to areas of brain tissue resulting from age-related changes, injuries, or diseases. This is referred to as neuroplasticity and allows the brain to find new tracks around the injured brain tissue to accommodate for the damage.3 Your brain has a certain amount of reserve that allows it to adapt and maintain your cognitive abilities even if a stroke, Alzheimer’s Disease, or a head injury affects the brain tissue itself.3 Think of this reserve as untapped brain function available when we need it. Through these reserves, our brains can reorganize and adapt to changes. Participating in physical activity increases our ability to access these reserves and to “rewire” when we need to.1,3

A recent study looked at the effects various forms of exercise had on the cognition of adults over 50 years of age.5 The key finding from this review was that “physical exercise interventions are effective in improving cognitive function in adults aged less than 50 years, regardless of their current cognitive status.”5 In other words, even if you have started to notice mild challenges with your memory, word finding or problem solving, starting an exercise program or becoming more active can manage or reduce these challenges. Having a positive attitude and leading a more active, social life can also positively affect your cognitive health.1

So, what type of exercise will help as I get older?

When discussing physical exercise programs, physiotherapists will generally refer to aerobic or resistance/strengthening types of exercise.6 Aerobic exercise training is aimed at improving heart and lung function and endurance by increasing your heart and breathing rates.6 Aerobic activities may include brisk walking, aquafit classes or using treadmills or other types of fitness equipment. Resistance training aims to improve muscular strength and may include activities such as lifting weights.6

Current evidence suggests that, no matter how often, what type, how long or how intense the activity is, increasing your activity level can help you maintain or improve your cognition.3,4 Although participation in either aerobic or resistance training programs alone has been shown to improve or maintain cognitive function in older adults, there is good evidence that participation in both forms of exercise provides even better results.4,6

It also appears that by combining activities that challenge memory, problem solving or concentration with physical activities there may be an even greater effect on improving cognition in healthy older adults or those who are already experiencing mild cognitive decline.3 Any activity that requires you to do two things at once, one physical and one that challenges your mind, can increase the overall effect on your cognitive function. Dance, tai chi, or other martial arts training are examples of activities that are considered aerobic exercises that also stimulate thinking by learning new steps or challenging your memory.3

So, what does this mean to me?

When you put this all together, living an active lifestyle that includes physical activity and exercise along with activities that challenge your memory or problem solving may slow the cognitive decline often associated with aging. You may also prolong your ability to live more independently and postpone the onset of illnesses such as Alzheimer’s Disease.1 Add to this the fact that physical activity has positive effects on your overall physical abilities and health by reducing the risk of developing conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes6 and it becomes clear why older adults are strongly encouraged to keep physically and cognitively active for as long as possible.

In other words, get out and get active because yes, exercise can help your memory and ability to live independently longer! Start by becoming a little more active every day. This can be a simple as starting a regular walking program with a friend, taking up Tai Chi or yoga, or lifting some weights while watching your favorite TV show. If you add in a word game or logic puzzle even better. Every little bit adds up and can help maintain your ability to think clearly and remain independent and healthy well into your senior years.

Click here to find a physiotherapist who can help guide your exercise program and get you started.


  1. Hertzog, C., Kramer, A. F., Wilson, R. S., & Lindenberger, U. (2008). Enrichment Effects on Adult Cognitive Development: Can the Functional Capacity of Older Adults Be Preserved and Enhanced? Psychol Sci Publ Int. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6053.2009.01034.x Accessed Jan 29, 2019.
  2. Buchman AS, Yu L, Wilson RS, Lim A, Dawe RJ, Gaiteri C, et al. (2019) Physical activity, common brain pathologies, and cognition in community-dwelling older adults. Neurology 92:8. Accessed Jan 22, 2019.
  3. Gheysen F, Poppe L, DeSmet, A, Swinnen S, Cardon G, Bourdeaudhuij I, et al. (2018) Physical activity to improve cognition in older adults: can physical activity programs enriched with cognitive challenges enhance the effects? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 15:63. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-018-0697-x . Accessed Feb 6, 2019.
  4. Goizueta Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. What is Mild Cognitive Impairment. Available at http://alzheimers.emory.edu/healthy_aging/mild-cognitive-impairment/index.html Accessed Feb 7, 2019.
  5. Northey JM, Cherbuin N, Pumpa KL, et al. (2018) Exercise interventions for cognitive function in adults older than 50: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med 2018;52:154–160. Accessed Jan 22, 2019.
  6. Liu-Ambrose T, Barha CK, and Best JR. (2018) Physical activity for brain health in older adults. Appl. Physiol. Nutr.Metab. 43: 1105-1112. Available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1139/apnm-2018-0260 Accessed Jan 22, 2019.