TSUKUBA, Japan — Exercise has a long-standing connection to a sharper mind, especially among older individuals. Now, however, new research out of Japan is showcasing just how easily older adults can reap the cognitive rewards of staying active. Scientists at the University of Tsukuba found that people’s cognition and brain efficiency improved after just three months of mild exercise sessions three times a week.
Several prior studies have focused on moderate-to-high-intensity aerobic exercise programs lasting for longer periods (6 to 12 months) and their impact on executive function (controlled by the brain’s prefrontal cortex). Of course, many people know how tough it can be to stick with an exercise routine for that long.
This time around, researchers built upon prior investigations already conducted at the University of Tsukuba and the University of California-Irvine, that had found even brief sessions of mild exercise, such as walking and yoga, appear capable of stimulating the brain and producing temporary improvements in cognitive performance. Up until this latest study, though, the long-term effect of long-term mild aerobic exercise on brain function in humans, as well as the underlying mechanisms involved, had been unexplored.
Researchers assessed a group of healthy middle-aged and older adults (ages 55-78) who were randomly divided into two groups: one that performed low-intensity bicycle exercise three times weekly for three months (exercise group) and another cohort that simply continued with their normal daily routine (control group). Study authors evaluated each person’s executive function using a Stroop test and assessed prefrontal cortex activity during the task using functional near-infrared spectroscopy — both before and after the intervention.
The ensuing findings revealed the exercise cohort indeed showed significant improvement in executive function compared to the control group. Importantly, when the data was analyzed according to age, the benefits of mild exercise became especially pronounced in the older adult group (ages 68-78).
The underlying brain mechanism behind this improvement featured an increase in the efficient activation of the prefrontal cortex. Put another way, executive function was high while corresponding brain activation was relatively low. These findings, the study authors explain, suggest that just three months of mild exercise is enough to strengthen the brain’s functional networks, allowing the prefrontal cortex to be utilized more efficiently during the Stroop test.
In conclusion, study authors say this potentially groundbreaking discovery highlights the positive impact just a few months of exercise can have on the brain; strengthening the prefrontal cortex and enhancing cognitive function among older adults. This work will likely contribute to the development of new exercise programs and strategies that improve executive function, designed with older individuals with low physical fitness levels and limited motivation to exercise in mind.
The study is published in the journal GeroScience.