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Cycling definitely helps keep you in great physical shape, but that’s not the only benefit your favorite activity has on your body. According to research out of Durham, North Carolina, aerobic exercise has some serious perks for your brain, too—like helping to reverse its age by almost nine years.
The 2019 study, published in the journal Neurology, involved 160 participants with an average age of 65 years, who were mostly sedentary, and had minor cognitive problems that weren’t severe enough to be classified as dementia, like difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or remembering. On average, they had the executive function—encompassing things like memory, reasoning, and problem solving skills—of a 93-year-old.
Each person was randomly assigned to six months of either aerobic exercise (three times a week for 45 minutes each session at greater than 65 percent of their max heart rate), adhering to the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, following a combination of aerobic exercise and the DASH diet, or attending informational sessions where they learned about ways to boost their brain health.
The results? Those who were assigned the combination of exercise and the DASH diet saw the most brain-boosting benefits, and actually experienced an improvement—they now had the cognitive function of an 84-year-old instead of a 93-year-old. But those who only exercised still “demonstrated significant improvements in the executive function domain,” according to the study.
“The take home message is that it is not too late for older adults with subtle cognitive impairments to adopt healthy lifestyle habits,” lead study author James A. Blumenthal, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center, told Bicycling. “We found that aerobic-type exercises resulted in improved executive functioning.”
Aerobic exercise helps boost the production of nitric oxide—which improves blood flow—and increases the release of neurotrophins, which are essential for the neurons in your brain to develop and grow. Both of these factors support the formation of new brain cells.
And while Blumenthal and his colleagues didn’t investigate what this means for younger people or whether lifelong exercise, specifically, contributes to improved cognition (as opposed to following a program for just six months), past research has been done to prove this theory. For instance, research from the University of Texas at Austin found that HIIT improved the performance on cognitive tests in young adults, and a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that people in their 70s who did some kind of aerobic activity for the last 50 years had the VO2 maxes and muscular fitness of those up to 35 years younger.
The bottom line? Keep getting out on the roads—or trails—at least a few times a week to help give your brain a boost, even if it’s only for an hour or so.