It pays to be physically active. From a casual, regular stroll down the street to counting hours in the gym. Whatever your choice of activity, researchers at the University College London Medical School have found that any physical activity at any age leads to better brain function in later life.

Interestingly, they observed that higher cognition was more prominent among those who followed an exercise routine all through adulthood.

Up until now, there hasn’t been any clear evidence on whether there are important “sensitive” periods most beneficial for one to exercise during their lifespan or if it has a sustained impact later in life on cognition.

The team worked to determine whether the timing, frequency, or maintenance of physical activity across a person’s lifetime conferred major health benefits on later life cognition.

Study Methodology

For the study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, the researchers drew on data from the 1946 British Birth Cohort. They involved over 1,417 participants, collecting information on their participation in physical activities at ages 36, 43, 53, 60–64, and 69, and examined the association with a series of cognition tests performed at age 69.

Then, at each age, the researchers grouped the participants into different physical activity categories: inactive adults, moderately active adults (those who engaged in physical activity 1–4 times a month), and most active adults (those who engaged in physical activity more than 5 times a month). They then looked at all five assessments and summed them up to generate a total score ranging from 0 (inactive at all ages) to 5 (active at all ages).

Their analysis showed that about 11 percent of participants reported being physically inactive all through their lives. Some 17 percent reported being active at one time, 20 percent were active at two to three time periods, and 17 percent reported being physically active at four time periods. Meanwhile, 15 percent reported being active in all five. 

At age 69, participants were made to undergo a test of cognitive states that assessed attention and orientation, verbal fluency, memory, and language. Plus, they also analyzed participants’ processing speed and verbal memory through a visual search task and word learning tests, respectively.

They also took into account factors that could increase the risk of cognitive decline like cardiovascular health and emotional and mental health, including whether or not they carried the APOE-ε4 gene. This allowed the team to determine if these modified any associations.


In the end, the researchers found that those who were moderately active or most active at all ages in adulthood had increased brain performance, verbal memory, and processing speed when they clocked 69 years.

Most surprising, according to the researchers, was that the effect stayed similar across all ages and among those who were mostly or moderately active.

This led them to conclude that “being physically active at any time in adulthood, even if participating as little as once per month, is linked with higher cognition.”

The team explains that their findings may be attributed to participants’ childhood cognition, socioeconomic position, and education. But they also say that the effects remained significant after considering these factors.


Overall, the researchers suggest starting and cultivating the habit of exercising throughout adulthood may be more essential than the timing of exercising or how frequently you exercise at a certain period.

So in line with guidelines, this study encourages inactive adults to take up exercise at any time and also encourages those who are already active to maintain it.

More importantly, they recommend partaking in any physical activity throughout adulthood for its later-life brain benefits and as a key to warding off dementia.

Written by

Medically Reviewed by