How Running Today Keeps Your Brain Sharp Tomorrow

Hit the pavement, for your noodle’s sake!

More reason to move your butt: Good cardiovascular health at 25 is linked to sharper mental performance in middle age, shows new research in the journal Neurology.

The international study team asked more than 2,700 young adults to complete a series of treadmill fitness tests. Roughly two decades later, the same people repeated those cardio tests, and also played brain games designed to measure short-term memory and “executive function” skills like problem-solving and reasoning.

The results: The more active you are in your early 20s, the better your brain performs when you hit your 40s and 50s. That’s especially true for people who continued to stay physically active between early and middle adulthood, the study suggests.

A major measure of fitness is strong vascular function—the way your blood flows and your blood vessels stay oxygenated. Most brain problems or mental drop-offs have been linked to vascular issues, explains study coauthor David R. Jacobs, Jr., Ph.D., of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. By staying physically fit, you’re giving your brain the blood and oxygen it needs to stay sharp, the research suggests. It’s also possible that physically active guys are less likely to smoke or be overweight—other factors that may improve vascular function and brain health, Jacobs adds.

You can guess our advice: stay in shape! The “use it or lose it” maxim applies to young men just as it does to older adults. “Fitness is harder to recover the older one gets,” Jacobs explains. While he can’t offer specific workout guidelines based on his research, Jacobs says any vigorous activity—swimming, running, circuit training—performed regularly will help you maintain good cardio fitness, and so should also benefit your brain.