An international study, featuring clinical researchers from the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Brain Health Center (PBHC) at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California, has uncovered a connection between regular exercise and improved brain health. 

The study, titled “Exercise-Related Physical Activity Relates to Brain Volumes in 10,125 Individuals,” was recently published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. It reveals that physical activity is linked to the enlargement of brain regions crucial for memory and learning.

The study looked at MRI brain scans from 10,125 people done at Prenuvo imaging centers, a key collaborator in the research.  It found those who regularly engaged in physical activities such as walking, running, or sports had larger brain volumes in key areas. 

This includes the gray matter, which helps with processing information, and the white matter, which connects different brain regions, as well as the hippocampus, important for memory.

Cyrus A. Raji, MD, the lead researcher, explains the findings in simple terms: “Our research supports earlier studies that show being physically active is good for your brain. Exercise not only lowers the risk of dementia but also helps in maintaining brain size, which is crucial as we age.”

David Merrill, MD, study co-author and director of the PBHC, notes, “We found that even moderate levels of physical activity, such as taking fewer than 4,000 steps a day, can have a positive effect on brain health. This is much less than the often-suggested 10,000 steps, making it a more achievable goal for many people.”

Study co-author Somayeh Meysami, MDassistant professor of neurosciences at Saint John’s Cancer Institute and the Pacific Brain Health Center notes, “Our research links regular physical activity to larger brain volumes, suggesting neuroprotective benefits. This large sample study furthers our understanding of lifestyle factors in brain health and dementia prevention.

A Lancet Study in 2020 found about a dozen modifiable risk factors increase risk for Alzheimer’s disease, including physical activity. This work builds upon previous work by this group, linking caloric burn from leisure activities to improved brain structure. 

“With comprehensive imaging scans, our study underscores the interconnected synergy between the body and the brain. It echoes the knowledge of past generations, showcasing that increased physical activity is a predictor of a healthier aging brain,” says Attariwala, senior author of this paper.