Working 9 to 5 on Your Body and Brain

Physical activity can help cognitive functioning among older populations

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Exercise affects the whole body. That means the brain, too...at least among older adults.

Physical activity that increases muscle strength and focuses on a person's balance, coordination and agility can help keep brains sharp, a new study revealed.

"Get 30 minutes of exercise a day."

Researchers, led by Roberta Forte, from the Institute for Sport and Health at the University College Dublin in Ireland, aimed to see how well different kinds of exercise affect how well older adults can control automatic responses and their functional ability.

The study included 42 healthy adults between 65 and 75 years of age. Researchers chose participants that did not exercise more than once a week regularly and had no history of heart problems, arthritis in their arms or legs or other pathological problems that may affect results.

Over a three month period, half the participants were assigned to do multiple exercises that worked on their overall balance, agility, coordination and mental control.

The other half lifted weights using all the muscle groups. Participants alternated between both free weights and floor exercises with increased weight over time.

Each exercise session lasted an hour long twice weekly. Researchers occasionally challenged participants with a series of mental tasks to perform while exercising.

One test had participants create a random sequence of numbers between 0 and 9 at a pace of 40 beats per minute to test their ability to inhibit or control their thinking and responses.

Another task had participants draw lines testing their attention span, mental speed and ability to switch from thinking about one concept to a completely different one.

Tests were done at the beginning of the study, four weeks in, and at the end. Their heart strength was also measured by finding how much oxygen they could inhale, as well as their muscular strength.

Researchers found that with any type exercise, participants were better able to control their responses to the mental tasks. Functional mobility was not affected.

Training that had multiple components specifically helped participants with their inhibition control. Weight training also helped it indirectly with the strength participants gained.

"Combining physical and cognitive training components in sequence has been shown to maximize cognitive benefits in the elderly," researchers wrote in their report.

"Training programs integrating physical and cognitive components have also been tested, with the physical component consisting of stationary cycling or walking, or incorporating a more varied virtual dance imitation that involved the sensing of stimuli, paying attention and making quick decisions."

Researchers noted their study was small and they knew who was receiving what treatment, which might have caused bias in the results. In addition, the results may not apply to older individuals who were not necessarily healthy.

Future research should look at what kinds of exercises directly improve decision making and how much they actually help, researchers said.

The study, funded by the Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology, was published online January 10 in the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging. No conflicts of interest were reported.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 11, 2013
Last Updated:
January 14, 2013