Exercise for Your Aging Brain

Researchers say benefits can be reaped after a single bout of physical activity.

Posted Aug 27, 2019

Clker-Free-Vector-Images/Pixabay, used with permission
A single exercise session reaps mental benefits.
Source: Clker-Free-Vector-Images/Pixabay, used with permission

A study out of the University of Iowa’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences has found that a single exercise session can do as much to improve cognition and memory in the minds of some older people as a long-term regime of regular exercise. Why?  The mental boost is temporary, regardless of how often you exercise. So on a day-to-day basis, you get the same benefit every time you exercise. If you want the benefit to continue, you exercise every day. But if the thought of exercising every day is overwhelming, or seems like too much of a commitment, you can use this information as motivation to exercise just for today. Wake up tomorrow, and you can revisit the idea.

This small study included 34 healthy, cognitively normal men and women ages 60 to 80 who were not normally active. The participants undertook a 12-week aerobic training program wherein they exercised on a stationary bicycle for 50 minutes, three times a week. They were divided into two groups: a moderate intensity workout and a lighter intensity workout. The groups switched so that all participants exercised at both levels of intensity. To measure and compare improvements in cognitive function and working memory after each single episode of exercise at different intensities, and after they completed 12 weeks of training, the participants underwent brain scans (fMRI) and took computer-based, flash-card recognition tests for working memory.

The results showed that some of the study participants gained the same mental benefits after a single spell of exercise as they did upon completing the same activity routinely for 12 weeks. They also found that those participants whose brain scans showed increased connectivity in regions of the brain that are involved in cognition and memory also performed better on the computer memory test. There was little to no difference between light and moderate-intensity exercise results.  

Although most participants demonstrated both short and longer-term improvements, some showed little or no change at all. The same researchers are currently running a larger, longer study to confirm their findings and find out more about the effects of exercise on the brains of older adults. 


Voss MW, Weng TB, Narayana-Kumanan K, et al. Acute exercise effects predict training change in cognitions and connectivity. Medical and Science in Sports and Exercise. August 2, 2019. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31385912

University of Iowa. "Exercise is good for the aging brain: Researchers find a single bout of exercise boosts cognition, memory performance in some older people." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 August 2019.

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