May 30, 2018
2 min read

Long-term exercise improves thinking skills in older adults

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Exercising for at least 52 hours over the course of about 6 months benefits cognition in older adults with and without cognitive impairment, according to findings published in Neurology Clinical Practice.

“Given the limited effectiveness of available treatments for dementia, promotion of a healthy brain is relevant,” Joyce Gomes-Osman, PT, PhD, from the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation, and colleagues wrote. “Physical exercise can promote cognitive brain health ... and counteract many effects of cognitive aging.”

“Despite the determined efficacy, the available literature offers no practical prescriptive guidance for physical exercise to promote cognitive brain health,” they added. “The sufficient and optimal exercise dose and regimen to induce such effects have not been fully examined.”

Gomes-Osman and colleagues systematically reviewed 98 randomized controlled trials (n = 11,061; average age, 73 years) to determine the extent and duration of exercise that improves cognitive performance in older adults. More than half (59%) of participants were classified as healthy adults, 26% had mild cognitive impairment and 15% had dementia.

Exercising for at least 52 hours over the course of about 6 months benefits cognition in older adults with and without cognitive impairment.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

The trials included assessed the thinking and memory skills of older adults who initiated an exercise program for at least 4 weeks compared with those who did not. Exercise session length, intensity, weekly frequency and amount of exercise over time was documented.

Prior to enrolling in a study, 58% of participants did not exercise regularly. Aerobic exercises, such as walking, biking and dancing, were the most common exercises within the studies. Other exercises evaluated included a combination of aerobic exercise and strength or resistance training, strength training along and mind-body exercises, including yoga and Tai chi.

The researchers found that long-term exercise, defined as at least 52 hours of exercise for an hour each session over an average of 6 months, improved the brain’s processing speed among both healthy individuals and those with cognitive impairment. Long-term exercise also improved executive function in the healthy study population.

No amount of exercise was found to increase memory skills. Thinking skills were improved by aerobic exercise, strength training, mind-body exercise and combinations of such exercises.

“These results suggest that a longer-term exercise program may be necessary to gain the benefits in thinking skills,” Gomes-Osman said in a press release. “We were excited to see that even people who participated in lower intensity exercise programs showed a benefit to their thinking skills. Not everyone has the endurance or motivation to start a moderately intense exercise program, but everyone can benefit even from a less intense plan.”

“Only the total length of time exercising could be linked to improved thinking skills,” she added. “But our results may also provide further insight. With a majority of participants being sedentary when they first enrolled in a study, our research suggests that using exercise to combat sedentary behavior may be a reason why thinking skills improved.” – by Alaina Tedesco

Disclosure: Gomes-Osman reports no relevant financial disclosures. Please see study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.