A Quick Cardio Workout to Ramp Up Your Brain Power

By Elizabeth Millard, A.C.E.-certified trainer, RYT-200 yoga teacher |

You already know that cardio makes your heart happy, but here’s how it boosts your cognitive abilities too. Plus, a short routine to try right now.

Senior Black woman exercising at home for a story on cardio workouts for seniors

There’s a good reason why aerobic exercise is often called cardio: It consists of workouts that get your heart beating faster, which strengthens the heart muscle, lowers blood pressure, and improves circulation.

But better blood flow has another amazing effect on your body: It can sharpen your brain.

The think-better benefits can come without going to the gym every day. In fact, just two heart-pumping workouts a week deliver results, according to a 2023 review of 21 studies in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Researchers looked at adults aged 50 and older and found that those who did aerobic exercise twice a week showed significant improvements in their cognitive ability. This included improved memory, sharper language skills, and better judgement.

Cardio has a positive brain effect on those at the highest end of the age spectrum too. Other research published in 2023 found that adults aged 85 to 99 who regularly do aerobic exercise — along with strength training — scored higher on cognitive tests than those who didn’t exercise.

And in even more good news, you don’t need to do high-powered, lengthy workouts to see these brain benefits. Adding short cardio sessions two or more times a week can have considerable advantages for your heart— and your mind.

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How to Do the Quick Cardio Workout for Brain Power

As always, safety is key. Get your doctor’s OK before beginning a new exercise program. The exercises here may be different or more advanced than those you’ll experience in a SilverSneakers class. If you have a chronic condition (including osteoporosis and arthritis), balance issues, or injuries, talk to your doctor about how you can exercise safely.

Do these moves below as a sequence. That means doing all six exercises as a set and then repeating that set two to three times. If you are just getting started with cardio exercise, do one set each week. After a few weeks, build up to multiple sets three to five days a week.

What you need:

  • Space to move
  • Comfortable clothing
  • Sturdy chair for stability if needed
  • Water to sip, as needed

Recommended reading: Cardio Exercise for Older Adults
How to Keep Your Brain Healthy: The SilverSneakers Guide


March in place for 2 minutes, gradually increasing your pace.

Exercise #1: Alternating Reaches

How to do it:

  1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Brace your core.
  3. Bend your knees to begin a light bounce.
  4. As you lift up, alternate reaching your arms across your body and then over your head.
  5. If you’d like, you can lift your heels to go up on your toes on the lift up.
  6. Continue for 30 seconds.

Exercise #2: Skater Step

How to do it:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. With control, step one foot behind you at a slight angle, landing on the ball of your foot with your hips and knees bent slightly.
  3. You can step back as little or as much as comfortable for you. Let your arms swing gently and naturally.
  4. Still with control, return your foot to the starting position.
  5. Repeat on the opposite side.
  6. Continue alternating for 30 seconds.

Exercise #3: Step Out and In with Calf Raise

How to do it:

  1. Stand tall with your feet about hip-width apart and your arms at your sides, palms facing in.
  2. Bend your elbows to bring your hands near your shoulders.
  3. From here, step your right foot out to the side as far as is comfortable and push your hips back slightly to lower into a shallow squat.
  4. At the same time, straighten your arms.
  5. Push through your right heel to step your right foot back in. As your feet come together, bend your elbows and go up on your toes for a quick calf raise with both legs.
  6. Continue alternating side to side for 30–60 seconds.

Recommended FREE SilverSneakers On-Demand Class: Cardio Fitness for Seniors

Exercise #4: Alternating Toe Taps With Knee Lifts

How to do it:

  1. Stand tall with your head and chest up, and your arms bent at your sides.
  2. Feel free to place a hand on a wall or sturdy chair for support, if needed.
  3. Shift your weight to your right foot and tap your left foot’s toes on the ground in front of you.
  4. After you tap your toes, lift your left knee before bringing your foot back to the starting position.
  5. Return your left foot back to the starting position, shift your weight onto that foot, and tap your right toes to the front.
  6. Continue alternating your front toe taps while you pump your arms for 30–60 seconds.

Exercise #5: Low Jacks

How to do it:

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  1. Stand tall with your head and chest up, and your feet about hip-width apart.
  2. Raise your elbows about chest height and reach them behind you slightly to engage your back.
  3. From here, keep your elbows lifted as you extend your arms overhead.
  4. At the same time, tap your right foot out to the side.
  5. Return to your starting position.
  6. Continue to raise and lower your arms as your alternate toe taps out to the side for 30–60 seconds.

Make it easier: If it’s uncomfortable to raise your arms overhead, extend and cross your arms in front of your body instead.

Exercise #6: Side Step Squat with Overhead Reach and Knee Lift

How to do it:

  1. Step out to the right side and lower into a squat.
  2. As you return to the starting position, make sure your left foot is firmly on the floor and lift your right knee.
  3. As you lift your right knee, reach both arms overhead. The movement should be smooth and controlled. To balance, imagine a string through the crown of your head is pulling your spine toward the ceiling.
  4. Pause, then step back out to a side squat, and bring your hands to your chest. That’s one rep.
  5. Do 5 reps.
  6. Repeat on the opposite side for 5 reps.

Make it easier: If it’s uncomfortable to raise your arms overhead, do arm punches to the front or to the side instead.

Repeat the circuit two more times.


March in place for 2 minutes, this time gradually slowing your pace.

Love these exercises and want more? Take a SilverSneakers LIVE Cardio Mix Class! This 45-minute online class is appropriate for intermediate exercisers. You’ll elevate your heart rate with low-impact cardio movements and options to safely progress to a higher-intensity workout. View the schedule and RSVP here.

See our sources:
The effects of exercise in cognitive function of older adults: International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health and GeroScience

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