Physical exercise can convey a protective effect against cognitive decline in ageing and Alzheimer’s disease. While the long-term health-promoting and protective effects of exercise are encouraging, it’s potential to induce neuronal and vascular plasticity in the ageing brain is still poorly understood. It remains unclear whether exercise slows the trajectory of normal ageing by modifying vascular and metabolic risk factors and/or consistently boosts brain function by inducing structural and neurochemical changes in the hippocampus and related medial temporal lobe circuitry—brain areas that are important for learning and memory. Hence, it remains to be established to what extent exercise interventions in old age can improve brain plasticity above and beyond preservation of function. Existing data suggest that exercise trials aiming for improvement and preservation may require different outcome measures and that the balance between the two may depend on exercise intensity and duration, the presence of preclinical Alzheimer’s disease pathology, vascular and metabolic risk factors and genetic variability.