A sedentary lifestyle can cause significant loss of skeletal muscle as we age. This muscle loss can be counteracted with proper strength training. New research published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society suggests your training regimen may be doing more than just preventing muscle atrophy. It may be preventing brain atrophy.

According to the University of Maryland School of Public Health, older adults taking part in exercise programs of moderate intensity are able to increase the thickness of the brain’s cortex, the outer layer of the brain which plays a key role in consciousness. This research may have large implications for those at risk for neurodegenerative diseases.

“Exercise may help to reverse neurodegeneration and the trend of brain shrinkage we see in those with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s,” Dr. J. Carson Smith, lead author of the study, said.

In the study, previously sedentary adults between the ages of 61 and 88 were put on a training program featuring moderate treadmill walking for an average of four times per week. Cardiorespiratory fitness improved by approximately eight percent as a result of the exercise. These improvements were seen both with healthy subjects and those with mild cognitive impairments.

The study showed the participants with the largest improvements in their fitness also had the most growth in the cortex of the brain. Although both groups showed improvement, participants with mild cognitive impairment showed the most improvement in two areas of the brain linked to accelerated decline in Alzheimer’s patients.

“Many people think it is too late to intervene with exercise once a person shows symptoms of memory loss,” Smith said. “Our data suggest that exercise may have a benefit in this early stage of cognitive decline.”

Previous research done by Dr. Smith suggested a link between exercise and memory improvements in older adults. He has also published data indicating moderate physical activity may prevent shrinking of the hippocampus, the area of the brain thought to be responsible for emotion, memory and parts of the nervous system.

Future research is planned to determine whether longer-term exercise can lead to greater improvements.

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