January 30, 2019
2 min read

Exercise improves thinking skills in young adults

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Adults as young as 20 years who regularly performed aerobic exercises demonstrated improvements in thinking skills, particularly those that regulate behavior, attention and organization, according to research published in Neurology.

“While animal and human studies indicate cognitive benefits from aerobic exercise across the lifespan, controlled exercise studies in humans generally have been restricted to elderly individuals,” Yaakov Stern, PhD, professor of neuropsychology in the Taub Institute at Columbia University, and colleagues wrote.

Stern and colleagues conducted a randomized clinical trial to investigate how aerobic exercise affects cognitive function in younger healthy adults aged 20 to 67 years (n = 132).

Participants did not smoke or have dementia and had below average fitness levels at the beginning of the study.

The researchers randomly assigned participants to participate in aerobic exercises or stretching and toning exercises four times a week for 6 months. Those in the aerobic group did activities such as walking on a treadmill, cycling on a stationary bike and using an elliptical machine, while those in the stretching and toning group did exercises to promote flexibility and core strength.

Adults as young as 20 years who regularly performed aerobic exercises demonstrated improvements in thinking skills, particularly those that regulate behavior, attention and organization.
Source: Adobe Stock

All participants wore heart rate monitors during exercising and had a fitness coach who monitored their progress. An ergometer was used to estimate exercise intensity.

The researchers evaluated participants’ thinking and memory skills at the beginning of the study, and at 3 months and 6 months and administered MRI brain scans at the start and end of the study. They also measured everyday function, BMI and cortical thickness and cognitive function in various domains, including executive function, episodic memory, processing speed, language and attention.

Participants in the aerobic exercise group demonstrated significant increases in aerobic capacity and significant decreases in BMI, compared with the stretching and toning group. Additionally, there was significant improvement in thinking skills, particularly executive function, among participants in the aerobic exercise group. Thinking skills were 0.228 SD (95% CI, 0.007–0.448) higher at age 40 years and 0.596 SD (95% CI, 0.219–0.973) higher at age 60 in the aerobic group than the stretching and toning group.

“Since a difference of 0.5 standard deviations is equivalent to 20 years of age-related difference in performance on these tests, the people who exercised were testing as if they were about 10 years younger at age 40 and about 20 years younger at age 60,” Stern said in a press release.

Participants of all ages in the aerobic exercise group showed a significant increase in cortical thickness in the left frontal area.


There was no association between exercise and improved memory skills. Participants with the APOE 4 allele, a genetic marker for dementia, had less improvement in thinking skills.

“As people age, there can be a decline in thinking skills, however our study shows that getting regular exercise may help slow or even prevent such decline,” Stern said in the release.

“Since thinking skills at the start of the study were poorer for participants who were older, our findings suggest that aerobic exercise is more likely to improve age-related declines in thinking skills rather than improve performance in those without a decline,” he added.

“Our research confirms that exercise can be beneficial to adults of any age,” he said. – by Alaina Tedesco


Disclosures: Stern reports receiving a grant from California Walnut Commission and consulting for AbbVie, Axovant, Eli Lilly and Takeda. Please see study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.