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Why To Exercise Today: Fitness In Youth May Mean Smarter Middle Age

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In a frou-frou paper store this weekend, I saw a precious stack of little aerograms that were meant to be "letters to my future self." My first reaction was, "Wait a minute, aren't you supposed to write a letter to your past self, telling yourself everything will be okay?" My second reaction was to start composing: "Dear future self, if you're reading this I'm still alive. Good."

Today, a study featured in the New York Times — Early Fitness May Improve The Middle-Aged Brain — serves as a reminder that our current selves are affecting our future selves all the time. In particular, you'll be thanking yourself later for the exercise you do now. From the Times:

The more physically active you are at age 25, the better your thinking tends to be when you reach middle age, according to a large-scale new study. Encouragingly, the findings also suggest that if you negligently neglected to exercise when young, you can start now and still improve the health of your brain.

More detail:

The results, published last month in Neurology, are both notable and sobering. Those volunteers who had been the most fit as young adults, who had managed to run for more than 10 minutes before quitting, generally performed best on the cognitive tests in middle age. For every additional minute that someone had been able to run as a young adult, he or she could usually remember about one additional word from the lists and make one fewer mistake in distinguishing colors and texts.

That difference in performance, obviously, is slight, but represents about a year’s worth of difference in what most scientists would consider normal brain aging, Dr. Jacobs said. So the 50-year-old who could remember one word more than his age-matched fellows would be presumed to have the brain of a 49-year-old, a bonus that potentially could be magnified later, Dr. Jacobs added.

Readers? Personally, it's hard for me to imagine that long-term impact can compete with short-term motivators like "I don't want to feel lousy today because I didn't exercise." But does it help to know that you're giving a gift to your faraway future self?

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.

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