Most of us will experience changes to our cognitive function – things like memory, attention, awareness, reasoning, and judgement (1;2) – as we age (3). On a positive note, cognition is not always a downward slide. While processing speed and memory may get worse with age in some people, well-practiced and familiar things like vocabulary often hold steady, or may even improve as the years go by (3). With that said, any changes in cognitive function should be discussed with a health care provider, in part because they may be an early symptom of dementia (2).
Cognitive changes can affect our everyday lives, even in the absence of diseases like dementia. For example, older adults with impaired cognitive function are more likely to: fall; and struggle to take care of themselves, communicate effectively with their health care providers, and take medications as prescribed (2).
Fortunately, lifestyle can influence the cognitive changes that come with age – giving us the power to do things that help keep our minds healthy (4). One major point of discussion has been the benefit of physical exercise on cognitive function (1).
But before lacing up those running shoes or rolling out that yoga mat, take a look at what the benefits are, and what kind and how much exercise you need to do to give your brain a boost.
What the research tells us
A recent systematic review and meta analysis found that supervised physical activity can improve cognitive function in men and women over the age of 50. This improvement was seen across the board – meaning it did not matter whether a person’s cognitive function was already mildly impaired or not. Many types of physical activity appeared to be effective, including aerobic exercise, resistance training, and a combination of the two. While the findings for tai chi were also promising, more research is needed to confirm if tai chi is an effective strategy. Yoga, however, was not found to have an effect on cognitive function.
Overall, people who engaged in physical activity had better attention, executive function, memory, and working (short-term) memory. However, the impact on cognitive function differed according to exercise type, duration and intensity, as well as the specific area of cognition being looked at. For instance, it was found that resistance training may be especially effective for improving executive function, memory, and working memory, while tai chi improves working memory only. Although a variety of exercise types were successful, combined aerobic exercise and resistance training could be of most benefit, as could exercising at or above moderate intensity for 45-60 minutes. Interestingly, how often you exercise (i.e. frequency) and the total number of weeks you exercise for may not matter. In fact, positive benefits were seen across all exercise frequencies (low-high) and total number of weeks of exercise completed (short-long) (2).
Exercise is a great way to keep the body fit and healthy. If that isn’t enough motivation to get you moving, the possible added benefit to your cognitive function just might!