The best strategy for maintaining a fit brain may be to stay active over a lifetime, right? Or is it the other way around?

Historically, researchers have focused on the positive relationship between higher levels of physical activity and better cognitive functioning. The assumption has been that if we promote more physical activity in older adults, it will lead to a healthier brain. Now, University of Geneva researchers in Switzerland have investigated which comes first: more physical activity or a healthier mental state. The researchers evaluated data from over 105,000 adults, ages 50–90, over a 12-year period.

The result: Cognitive capacities influence physical activity levels more than vice versa. In other words, people with healthier brain functioning are more likely to be physically active. Lead study author Boris Cheval, PhD, a sports psychologist researcher at University of Geneva, said, “This study backs up our theory that the brain has to make a real effort to get out of a sedentary lifestyle and that by working on cognitive capacities, physical activity will follow.” Another way to think about the data is that if people maintain physical activity over a lifetime, they will simultaneously be supporting healthy cognitive resources.

Look for this study in Health Psychology (2020; 39 [6], 518–28).