Many people hit the gym to burn calories and improve body composition. But calorie expenditure isn’t just great for the waistline, says a new study—it’s also great for the brain. And when it comes to brain health, the more energy output per week, the better for avoiding Alzheimer’s disease.

The study included 876 adults aged 65 and older from the 30-year Cardiovascular Health Study. Subjects answered questionnaires about their participation in a range of activities—like gardening, dancing and indoor cycling—and underwent structural MRI scans of the brain, to measure gray matter.

According to the data, higher levels of physical activity were linked with significant improvements in brain volume. The risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease dropped 50% with increasing activity, and subjects with mild cognitive impairments saw exercise-related growth in brain matter. The best benefits were associated with greater calorie expenditure.

“Higher energy output, from a variety of physical activity types, was associated with larger grey matter volumes in frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes, as well as hippocampus, thalamus and basal ganglia,” the researchers explained. “High levels of caloric expenditure moderated neurodegeneration-associated volume loss in the precuneus, posterior cingulate, and cerebellar vermis.”

They felt these results had important implications for older-adult interventions. “With the elderly population growing rapidly, a better understanding of preventive measures for maintaining cognitive function is crucial,” the authors stated. “Studies such as this one suggest that simple caloric expenditure, regardless of type or duration of exercise, may alone moderate neurodegeneration and even increase [gray-matter] volume in structures of the brain central to cognitive functioning.”

This information was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease (2016; doi: 10.3233/JAD-160057).

Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson is an award-winning writer and editor. He is a long-time author and presenter for IDEA Health & Fitness Association, fitness industry consultant and former director of group training for Bird Rock Fit. He is also a Master Trainer for TriggerPoint.

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