Physical activity improves cognitive function for middle-aged adults

middle age exercise, physical activity

Middle to older aged adults can improve their brain function with daily physical activity, with researchers finding a direct correlation between these variables

This study, finding the relationship between exercise and brain function, using 90 middle-aged and older subjects who wore accelerometers while physically active and completed mobile cognitive testing from home.

Researchers found that on the days their physical activity increased, the 50- to 74-year-old participants performed more effectively on an executive function task. Similarly, on the days when their physical activity decreased, their cognitive performance declined also.

Raeanne Moore, PhD, associate professor at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, and principal investigator of the study, said: “The future of lifestyle interventions really needs to be remote-based. The pandemic has made this especially clear.”

Exercise may be one strategy to prevent or delay cognitive decline

Published in the journal JMIR mHealth and uHealth, with funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, the researchers took into account the correlation between physical activity and cognition remained when adjustments were made for various co-morbidities.

These included factors such as HIV status, age, sex, education and race/ethnicity. However, it held only for persons who function dependently – not including the people who rely on others to perform the tasks of daily living, such as managing household activities or paying the bills.

Moore added: “It was a very linear relationship. We hypothesized that we would find this, but we couldn’t be sure because we weren’t telling people to increase their physical activity. They just did what they do every day.”

“For them, physical activity may have a greater benefit on daily, real-world cognitive performance.”

First author Zvinka Zlatar, PhD, a clinical psychologist at UC San Diego School of Medicine, stated: “Future interventions, in which we ask people to increase their physical activity, will help us determine if daily changes in physical activity lead to daily gains in cognition measured remotely or vice versa.”

Researchers had additionally found consistent patterns within Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

Benefits for mental and physical health

Functionally independent adults are additionally likely to perform more cognitively stimulating and social activities, which are known to have positive impacts on brain health, as well as mental health.

Zlatar said: “We don’t know yet if there’s a cumulative, long-term effect to these small daily fluctuations in cognition. That’s something we plan to study next – to see if performing physical activity at different intensities over time, in unsupervised settings, can produce long-term improvements in brain health and sustained behavior change.”

The authors, Moore and Zlatar add that their work has implications for the development of novel digital health interventions to preserve brain health in aging.


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