Boost your brain health with exercise targeting both your body and your brain

The Bottom Line

  • Declining cognitive function is a massive global health issue.
  • Combined physical activity and brain training can be one way to improve cognitive function in older adults with or without mild cognitive impairment.  
  • Doing physical and cognitive exercises simultaneously may be more beneficial than doing them both but at different times. 

As we age, topics such as memory loss, cognitive decline, and dementia will come up more frequently in conversations with friends, family, and health care providers. At the same time, the latest research findings on causes, treatments, and prevention will continue to be highlighted in daily news headlines, the books we read, the newsletters we subscribe to, and our favourite TV shows and podcasts.

Why the intense interest in such topics?

Declining cognitive function—things like memory, attention, awareness, reasoning, and judgement—is the leading cause of disability and death in older adults (1;2). But there may be ways to improve cognitive function (1;3;4). How? By taking advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity (1).

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and make new connections when met with things like damage, defects, new information, stimulation, or development. This concept goes against past beliefs that the brain is “hard-wired”, with newer and emerging evidence demonstrating that the brain can, in fact, reorganize itself (5). Take, for example, physical exercise in the form of aerobic or strength training. In older adults, physical exercise has been shown to lead to changes in how the brain is connected and structured, as well as how it functions (1;6-8).

Aside from physical activity, brain training may also improve cognitive function. If both strategies can work on their own, does this mean that combining the two can lead to even greater rewards (1)?

What the research tells us

A systematic review found that combining physical activity and brain training can improve cognitive function in older adults, regardless of whether they have mild cognitive impairment or not. Here, physical activity included aerobic exercise, strength training, or both, while brain training included tasks that trained one or multiple areas of cognitive function. Those exposed to a combination of physical and cognitive exercise benefited more than those taking part in usual care/doing nothing, or those doing physical activity alone. Interestingly, a combined physical and cognitive exercise program was not any better than doing brain training on its own. However, this finding shouldn’t encourage people to drop physical exercise from their strategy to stay cognitively healthy; because the benefits of exercise stretch far beyond brain health to include physical, mental, and social health as well. Rather, these findings should motivate people to add brain training to their new or existing physical activity routines.

The review also looked at whether the nature of the combined program—things like the length of the program or duration and frequency of training sessions—mattered. Short (<12 weeks), medium (12-13 weeks), and long (≥ 24 weeks) programs were all helpful, as were low (1 times/week), medium (2 times/week), and high (≥3 times/week) frequency training sessions. Sessions of short (≤ 45 min) and medium (> 45 to ≤60 min) duration also produced gains, whereas long (>60 min) sessions didn’t (although there wasn’t a huge difference between the three groups) (1). More research is needed to understand how these factors interact with each other, especially as a more recent review continues to highlight uncertainty about optimal prescriptions for factors like duration and frequency (9).

Instead, what may seem to matter more with these combined programs is whether physical activity and brain training are done at different times—such as one after another—or simultaneously, through activities like tai chi, dance, martial arts, or video games that involve exercise. Here, the latter—so doing brain and physical training simultaneously—showed the potential to be more effective (1). A more recent review further validates the benefits of combined physical and cognitive exercises, particularly those conducted simultaneously (9). While this combined strategy is promising, further research will need to explore how well this approach works over the long-term (1).

Hoping to stay sharp as you age? Exercising both your body and your brain together can help!

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Author Details


  1. Gheysen F, Poppe L, DeSmet A, et al. Physical activity to improve cognition in older adults: Can physical activity programs enriched with cognitive challenges enhance the effects? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2018; 15(1):63. doi: 10.1186/s12966-018-0697-x.
  2. World Health Organization. Governments commit to advancements in dementia research and care. [Internet] 2015. [cited August 2019]. Available from  
  3. Gutchess A. Plasticity of the aging brain: New directions in cognitive neuroscience. Science. 2014; 346(6209):579-582. 
  4. Reuter-Lorenz PA, Park DC. Human neuroscience and the aging mind: At old problems a new look. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2010; 65(4):405-415. doi: 10.1126/science.1254604.
  5. Rugnetta M. Neuroplasticity. [Internet] 2019. [cited August 2019]. Available from 
  6. Northey JM, Cherbuin N, Pumpa KL, et al. Exercise interventions for cognitive function in adults older than 50: A systematic review with meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2018; 52(3):154-160. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2016-096587.
  7. Norton S, Matthews FE, Barnes DE, Yaffe K, Brayne C. Potential for primary prevention of Alzheimer’s disease: An analysis of population-based data. Lancet Neurol. 2014;13(8):788-794.
  8. Panza GA, Taylor BA, MacDonald HV, et al. Can exercise improve cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer's disease? J am Geriatr Soc. 2018; 66(3):487-495. doi: 10.1111/jgs.15241. 
  9. Han K, Tang Z, Bai Z, et al. Effects of combined cognitive and physical intervention on enhancing cognition in older adults with and without mild cognitive impairment: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Front Aging Neurosci. 2022; 14:878025.

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.