A new study shows that for middle-aged people, too much time on the couch watching television instead of exercising could shrink their brains.

“We found a direct correlation in our study between poor fitness and brain volume decades later, which indicates accelerated brain aging,” said study author Nicole Spartano of Boston University School of Medicine.

For their study, researchers looked at over 1,500 people from the Framingham Heart Study, or FHS, a project of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and Boston University. The subjects were age 40 on average and did not have dementia or heart disease. They were given a treadmill test.

During the treadmill tests, the participants had an estimated “exercise capacity” (of 39 mL/kg/min), also known as VO2 or “the maximum amount of oxygen the body is capable of using in one minute.” Exercise capacity was estimated by monitoring the amount of time a subject could exercise before his or her heart rate passed a threshold.

The researchers found that for every eight units lower the subjects performed on the treadmill test, “their brain volume two decades later, was smaller, equivalent to two years of accelerated brain aging.”

Spartano warns that the study is “observational” and “does not prove that poor physical fitness causes a loss of brain volume,” but that there is an association between the two.

“While not yet studied on a large scale, these results suggest that fitness in middle age may be particularly important for the many millions of people around the world who already have evidence of heart disease,” she said.

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