Consistent cardiovascular exercise may one day be a key recommendation for maintaining mental fitness. Numerous studies confirm a connection between physical activity and brain fitness, but why this relationship exists has been unclear.

Researchers are keen to understand mechanisms that improve brain health, in light of dementia’s increasing prevalence. Five million Americans currently have dementia, and this number is projected to triple by 2050.

University of Texas Southwestern scientists in Dallas compared brain changes over 1 year between participants who did cardiovascular training three times per week and those who focused only on stretching for an equivalent time. Brain imaging showed increased blood flow to the anterior cingulate cortex and hippocampus, the brain regions involved in memory function, among the cardio group. Memory also improved.

“We’ve shown that even when your memory starts to fade, you can still do something about it by adding aerobic exercise to your lifestyle,” says Binu Thomas, PhD, a senior research scientist in neuroimaging at UT Southwestern. “Cerebral blood flow is a part of the puzzle, and we need to continue piecing it together. But we’ve seen enough data to know that starting a fitness program can have lifelong benefits for our brains as well as our hearts.”

The study is available in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease (2020; 75 [2], 617–31).

See also: Exercise and Mental Fitness