Last Updated April 21, 2014

Fit Young People Make for Sharp Old People, Study Says

Being fit in your younger years doesn’t just benefit you then. Your fitness levels in your 20s determine your mental sharpness 25 years later, according to a new study.

Fitness Levels at a Young Age

Researchers conducted a study that looks at how physical fitness at a young age translates to mental health later in life. In 1985, the researchers recruited approximately 5,000 individuals aged 18-30 to participate in the study. The participants were from Minneapolis, Minnesota; Birmingham, Alabama; Chicago, Illinois; and Oakland, California. The drastic difference of locations helped increase levels of diversity in the study.

At the outset of the study, all 5,000 participants took a treadmill test and a physical examination. The treadmill test tested how long people could run on the treadmill. After the initial tests, 2,700 agreed to do it again 20 years later. Researchers attribute the drop in participants to those who were less fit and not willing to do the treadmill part again.

After 20 years had passed, the participants were back on the treadmill again after receiving another physical exam. 5 years after the second test, those same people underwent a series of brain tests.

Brain Tests

The brain testing portion of the study consisted of three separate long term caretests: a word recall test, a number-based test of attention, thinking speed and memory, and a test of executive function that looks at how people can focus while tuning out distractions.

“The longer you could go on this treadmill test… the better you did in thinking skills,” David Jacobs of the University of Minnesota, who designed and led the study, said in an interview.

Those who continued to work on their physical fitness during their middle aged years did even better than those who were only fit in their 20s. People who practice healthy habits typically don’t just focus on one aspect of health, though. The study found that the people who were fit also weighed less, ate better, were less likely to smoke, exercised more frequently, were better educated, and watched less TV. Even after adjusting for all these influencing factors, the participants who were fit in their 20s still performed better.

Reminder to Be Active

It’s not overly surprising news, as research showing the mental benefits of exercise is quite common, but it is encouraging. Other studies have found that exercise boosts creativity, increases the size of the brain, and can reduce the risk of dementia.

Alzheimer’s disease is currently the 6th leading cause of death in the United States, responsible for the deaths of more than 500,000 people every year. 1 in 3 seniors will die with some type of dementia, so preserving brainpower into your elderly years is vital to protecting yourself from the risk of this disease.

“Many studies show the benefits to the brain of good heart health,” Jacobs said. “This is one more important study that should remind young adults of the brain health benefits of cardio fitness activities such as running, swimming, biking or cardio fitness classes… Just moving around — being engaged in family and life as opposed to sitting down and watching TV and pretty much not doing anything, they are going to preserve brain function. This is really about engagement in life,” he said.

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