How cardio exercise helps our brains as well as weight loss and heart health

New research has linked heart-healthy lifestyle factors, such as cardio exercise, with improved brain health

Older woman running to boost brain and heart health
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Whether it’s running, biking or even just taking a brisk walk, cardio exercise (the kind that gets your heart pumping) is great for the body. Known to improve key risk factors for heart disease – such as obesity and high blood pressure – it's no surprise that cardio exercise is good news for heart health. 

However, the benefits don’t stop there. By getting in a regular cardio workout (maybe on one of the best treadmills or best rowing machines) it may be possible to protect your brain health at the same time as protecting your heart. 

Research by the American Heart Association (opens in new tab) suggests that by improving these risk factors and following a ‘heart-healthy lifestyle’ we may not only reduce our risk of heart disease but also of cognitive decline. Published in the AHA’s Updated Statistics on Heart Disease and Stroke, the study highlights an important link between cardiovascular risk factors and brain disease. 

“We are learning more about how some types of dementia are related to aging, and how some types are due to poor vascular health,” writes Mitchell S.V. Elkind, former president of the American Heart Association and professor of neurology. “Many studies show that the same healthy lifestyle behaviors that can help improve a person’s heart health can also preserve or even improve their brain health.”

Older couple cycling

(Image credit: Getty Images)

So what does this ‘heart-healthy lifestyle’ entail? Well, the AHA recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, ideally spread evenly throughout the week. This recommendation is echoed by the UK’s NHS (opens in new tab) and Alzheimer's Society (opens in new tab), which also recognises the benefit of cardio when it comes to preventing brain diseases.

Another important lifestyle factor is, of course, diet. The Mediterranean diet, for example, has been found to have a beneficial effect on cardiovascular risk factors as well as better thinking skills in later life (opens in new tab)

Likewise, the omega 3 fatty acids found in oily fish have been linked to improved heart and brain health. The AHA recommends eating at least two portions of fish (especially fatty fish such as mackerel and salmon) a week to get the benefits: For those who can’t eat enough fish (or if you just plain don't want to), you could try one of our best fish oil supplements

The causes of brain disease such as Alzheimer’s are, of course, extremely complex, but by making sensible lifestyle changes now, it's possible we can at least reduce our risk and hopefully help protect our brains as well as our hearts.

Claire is a freelance health, fitness and food journalist who has written for titles including Women’s Health, Top Santé, Woman & Home, Feel Good You, the Telegraph and Independent. She has a passion for being outside in nature and you’re more likely to find her walking in the woods or joining an exercise class in the park than pounding a treadmill in the gym. She also has a special interest in nutrition and healthy eating, having previously been Food Editor at Top Santé magazine. Her top fitness tip? Take your exercise outdoors wherever possible. It has been shown to boost the physical as well as mental health benefits of a workout and also to make you more likely to want to do it again!