Staying Fit for Your Mind

Physical fitness was linked to better memory skills in recent study

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Exercise can help your body become stronger, faster and more resilient. And a fitter body might mean a fitter mind as people age.

A new study looked at the connection between physical fitness and mental fitness in adults of all ages. Participants' aerobic ability and brain function were tested several times over many years.

The study found that physical fitness predicted people's ability to perform well on memory tests. Those who were more physically fit were less likely to miss questions on memory exams.

The authors of the study suggested that being physically fit earlier in life may be important for preventing mental conditions like dementia later on.

"Exercise regularly."

Carrington Wendell, PhD, of the National Institute on Aging and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, led this study to see how physical activity affected people's ability to think throughout their lives.

The article by Dr. Wendell and colleagues referenced previous studies that looked at the relationship between cognitive function, or how well the brain works, and physical activity. However, most of those studies involved older participants and relied on self-reported information.

This study used oxygen consumption to provide a more accurate measure of levels of physical activity.

A total of 1,400 people between the ages of 19 and 94, with an average age of 54, participated in the trial.

The participants underwent an initial physical fitness assessment on a treadmill while researchers measured their oxygen consumption.

The participants also had their cognitive function tested, which included assessments of memory, concentration, verbal learning, visual retention, mental flexibility, language ability and more.

The researchers followed up with the participants up to six times for up to 18 years. The average participant had two follow-up visits. Each follow-up included a physical and a cognitive assessment.

The researchers found that poor physical fitness was associated with poorer performance in cognitive function tests, specifically visual and verbal memory. Better fitness was linked to better performance on memory tests.

For example, 80-year-olds who were more physically fit missed an average of three fewer questions on the visual retention test than 80-year-olds who were not as fit.

The discrepancy between memory and physical fitness was not as pronounced in younger people as it was for people ages 50 and older.

"This study is a perfect example of why we must teach young people good fitness habits early," said Jack Newman, Austin Tennis Academy's Head Coach and CEO. "Lifetime sports like tennis not only provide life long fitness, but also life long mental acuity."

The researchers concluded that the results of this study show the importance of physical fitness on overall health, even for people who are young.

They suggested that establishing physical fitness habits early could delay or even prevent later dementia.

The authors of the study noted that the participants were mainly highly educated, so the results might not apply to certain groups.

This study was published in The Journals of Gerontology: Series A on November 5.

The research was supported by the Intramural Research Program of the National Institute on Aging. The authors did not disclose any conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
November 8, 2013
Last Updated:
November 11, 2013