The Rules of Fitness Apply to the Brain—Staying Mentally Fit

Maintain and even improve cognitive performance as you age

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Just like your body, activity keeps your brain fit and can help you avoid some of the effects associated with typical age-related decline. Professor Vishton explains how to maintain your mental performance as you get older.

Two people exercising by the water
Age-related changes in cognition are lessened by staying active with regular activities of life, while also adding novel ones to learn. Photo By 4 PM production / Shutterstock

Stay Mentally Fit

In many domains, adults continue to stay mentally fit and even improve in terms of mental performance beyond 20 years of age, which is when the brain seems to peak in terms of basic cognitive performance. Imagine that you have developed the ability to do some task at 20 years of age—for example, driving a car in busy city traffic. 

Your brain has organized itself at that point to process the relevant sensory information, make strategic plans, and mediate your control of the vehicle. If your brain tries to do exactly the same thing in exactly the same way when you are 40, then your performance of this task will be worse.

However, if you learn to drive better by the time you are 40, you may be able to compensate for that basic cognitive loss. For instance, you may learn better routes to take at particular times of the day. You may learn to better recognize when pedestrians are about to walk into the street. 

You may learn that when your car makes a particular noise, pressing the accelerator won’t produce as much speed as it usually does. If the 40-year-old you is able to use these extra sources of strategic information well enough, you might be even better than the 20-year-old driver. 

Like Riding a Bike

We often describe certain tasks as like riding a bike. Once you learn how to ride a two-wheeled bike well, even if you don’t ride a bike for many years, you will still be able to hop onto a two-wheeler and just go. 

This isn’t just a cliche, by the way. For many visual-motor control tasks, like riding a bike, once we’ve mastered the task, the memory seems remarkably durable.

If you’re having trouble remembering an old phone number that you used to dial a lot, on a regular basis, you can often get it back by actually pressing the number keys on a phone. You might not be able to explicitly recall the number, but your fingers, having grown used to dialing that number, will still have it in procedural memory. For your fingers, dialing the number is like riding a bike.

Our memory works this way for many procedural tasks. This is one of those cognitive faculties that does not seem to decline much with age, so once again the riding-a-bike property will continue to apply into your later years.

Complex Activities and Cognition

For many complex activities, however, as we age, the bike seems to change. Your brain and body change over time

In order to maintain your level of performance, you will have to find clever, strategic ways to improve. If there is some ability that you would like to maintain as you age, you can absolutely do so. 

You just need to make sure that you work at it on a regular basis to maintain it. The good news is that, if you manage to strategically improve faster than your brain declines, you will continue to get improvements—perhaps for many, many years.

Comparing Physical Fitness to Mental Fitness

“Running long distances is something that has been a source of pleasure for me since I was nine years old,” Professor Vishton said. “For a 170-pound runner, about 400 pounds of pressure are applied to the foot.”

This pressure travels from your feet, up through your knees and hips. That happens with every single step, every time you land. Every mile requires you to run approximately 1,500 steps. 

It used to be that people presumed that this repetitive, massive pounding wore out your legs. Everyone is born, it was presumed, with a certain number of steps in them. Once you’ve run those steps, your knees are worn out, and it’s time to stop running.

More recent studies have found that the cartilage in your knees can repair the damage suffered during a typical run for many, many years, almost regardless of how much you run. Indeed, a lack of active use of the legs seems to be more involved in the decline of the knees than active running. 

The relationship between miles run and knee cartilage health, it turns out, is almost non-existent. There’s an expression that has become increasingly common in research on running and aging: People don’t stop running because they get old. They get old because they stop running.

This doesn’t just apply to runners’ knees. It applies to the brain as well. The human brain seems remarkably capable of compensating for age-related changes, as long as people stay mentally fit and engage in both routine as well as novel, challenging behaviors.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.