If you asked your doctors what you could do to protect yourself from losing your mental abilities, what do you think their answer will be? Most likely, exercise.

New guidelines from the American Academy of Neurology call for doctors to recommend twice-weekly exercise to people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) — a drop-off in memory and other mental abilities that is greater than the usual changes that accompany aging. While noticeable, this drop-off usually isn't severe enough yet to interfere much with day-to-day activities.

“Exercising might slow down the rate at which you would progress from mild cognitive impairment to dementia.”

The Academy's guidelines for MCI had not changed since 2001.

Studies showing tangible mental benefits for those who exercise regularly have been appearing for years. One found that people who exercised the most cut their risk of Alzheimer's in half. Because it has been so difficult to prove that exercise was the factor responsible for these benefits, medical guidelines have been slow to follow.

Medicine does change with the times, however. Just as your doctor's recommendations are not exactly the same as they were 20 years ago, more and more doctors are coming around to the possibility of a link between exercise and staving off mental decline. It certainly can't hurt.

“Regular physical exercise has long been shown to have heart health benefits, and now we can say exercise also may help improve memory for people with mild cognitive impairment,” said the guidelines' lead author, Ronald Petersen, a Professor of Neurology at the Mayo Clinic, in a statement.

Petersen encourages people to do whatever aerobic exercise they like for 150 minutes a week. You just need to get your heart rate up for 30 minutes five times a week or 50 minutes three times a week. It doesn't matter if you walk briskly, jog, row, use a treadmill, stationary bike, elliptical trainer or play a sport.

The level of exertion should be enough to work up a bit of a sweat but doesn't need to be so rigorous that you can't hold a conversation. “Exercising might slow down the rate at which you would progress from mild cognitive impairment to dementia,” Petersen added. In addition to exercise, the Academy also recommends seniors stop taking medications that may be impairing cognition.

The guidelines were published in Neurology. A summary is freely available.