Aerobic exercise may help boost memory, cognition in older adults

In a new study, published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, a group of researchers from the University of Iowa found just one session of aerobic exercise could have considerable cognitive benefits among older adults.

“Previous studies report memory and functional connectivity of memory systems improve acutely after a single aerobic exercise session or with training, suggesting the acute effects of aerobic exercise may reflect initial changes that adapt over time,” the study reads. “In this trial, for the first time, we test the proof-of-concept of whether the acute and training effects of aerobic exercise on working memory and brain network connectivity are related in the same participants.”

In past studies, exercise has shown to be effective in improving depression and cognitive health among adults. In the new study, researchers focused on the cognitive health benefits of exercise among older adults.

For this study, researchers set out to determine how one session of light to moderate exercise affects the cognitive health of older adults. 34 healthy participants, aged 60 to 80, were recruited for a series of physical exams, brain scans, and working memory tests, to identify any effects on functional brain systems. Brain scans and memory tests were conducted before and after each exercise session. The physical activity involved pedaling on a stationary bike for approximately 20 minutes.

Researchers found working memory improved in a portion of the participants after just one session of exercise. The reason for this, the findings say, is as a result of increased connectivity between the parietal cortex and prefrontal cortex and the medial temporal. These beneficiary effects on memory, however, were only short-term.

“The hope is that a lot of people will then keep it up because those benefits to the brain are temporary. Understanding exactly how long the benefits last after a single session, and why some benefit more than others, are exciting directions for future research,” said Michelle Voss, author of the study.

The participants were also instructed to undergo regular exercise utilizing the same exercise routine on a stationary bike. This time, however, participants exercised for 50 minutes a day, three times a week, for 12 weeks.

The findings showed that although the participants exhibited some benefits to their cognitive health, based on brain scans and working memory tests, the improvements were not much different compared to the single session exercises.

“Our data support the concept of acute aerobic exercise effects on functional brain systems and performance as an activity-evoked biomarker for exercise training benefits in the same outcomes,” researchers conclude.

“These findings may lead to new insights and methods for improving memory outcomes with aerobic exercise training.”