Staying active is important for anyone, regardless of age, but so much of the literature is about why it’s so important for children or for seniors. Often neglected are the adults in the very middle who often have the most responsibilities and can be the most pressed for time, causing many middle-aged adults to settle for less physical activity. However, the activity level you have during the middle years of your life not only improves your current health but specifically impacts the health of your brain up to 25 years later.
With life expectancies extending further these days, middle age is no longer between age 30/35 and age 60. The middle age has now been moved further up to beginning at age 45 by today’s standards; and while this heralds a better attitude for aging, a good amount of people would consider people over the age of 50 well past their middle age. It’s when we look at middle age through the lens of past perceptions of what middle age means that we see the decline of the importance of physical activity. Here the perception of needing to stay active well into pre-retirement years of the fifties and sixties is easily shrugged off because of the thought that it’s time to slow down and stop working, but it’s actually imperative to get moving.
Avoiding Brain Damage Later Starts Now
The neuroprotective benefits of physical activity were recently studied at Columbia University through a study which followed 1,604 people in their fifties for twenty-five years. Through data collected from five physical exams and weekly activity levels, researchers categorized the volunteers by their activity levels. At the conclusion of the 25 years, the participants underwent brain scans, and the researchers looked for differences in grey and white brain matter and signs of damage or disease.
Compared to individuals who were moderately to vigorously active in middle-age, those who did not make an effort to stay physically active (defined in this study as a walking, bicycling, or running) were 47% more likely to have signs of brain damage 25 years later, such as lesions. Higher levels of physical activity were also correlated to higher amounts of white brain matter and better circulation of water molecules throughout the tissue of the brain.
How Much Activity is Needed?
The study’s authors believe 1 hour and 15 minutes of weekly physical activity is the minimum required to prevent brain damage—but the optimum amount is 2 ½ hours or more per week. Planning to work physical activity into your schedule during middle age is now as important as planning how you’ll spend your retirement.
Priya Palta, A. Richey Sharrett, Kelley Pettee Gabriel, et al. A prospective analysis of leisure-time physical activity in mid-life and beyond and brain damage on MRI in older adults. Neurology Jan 21, 10.1212/WNL.0000000000011375; DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000011375