One Simple Way to Improve Your Brain Function

Cardiorespiratory fitness may improve brain function and cognitive flexibility.

Posted Sep 20, 2015

Pixabay/Free Image
Source: Pixabay/Free Image

Do you want to improve the structure and function of your brain?  Research at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign continues to confirm that regular exercise and physical fitness may improve both the structure and function of the human brain throughout a person’s lifespan.

In previous Psychology Today blog posts, I’ve written extensively about the research that Arthur F. Kramer, Beckman Institute director and professor of psychology and neuroscience at Illinois, and his colleagues, have been conducting on the brain benefits of exercise. 

Last month, I wrote a blog post, "Why Does Physical Activity Improve Cognitive Flexibility?" based on a study by Laura Chaddock-Heyman and Art Kramer which found that older adults who regularly engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity tend to have better brain function and greater white matter integrity than their less-fit peers. Gray matter houses the neurons in various brain regions. White matter creates communication networks between various brain regions.

MS blogspot/Labeled for Reuse
Source: MS blogspot/Labeled for Reuse

People who engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity also had increased cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility represents a person’s ability to switch between modes of thought and to simultaneously think about multiple concepts.

This month, a Beckman Institute study, "Brain Activation During Dual-Task Processing Is Associated with Cardiorespiratory Fitness and Performance in Older Adults," was published by Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

For this study, the research team, led by Art Kramer, examined brain imaging and fitness level data from 128 adults between the ages of 59-80. The first author of this paper is Chelsea Wong, an M.D./Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois.

Physical Fitness, Brain Function, and Executive Function Are Intertwined

The researchers found that improved brain function and structure were associated with higher cardiorespiratory fitness and better cognitive performance in older adults.

More specifically, the scientists found that the ability to dual-task, which represents better cognitive flexibility, was associated with higher cardiorespiratory fitness. Basically, the more physically fit someone was, the better he or she could perform a dual-task. In a press release, Wong described the study saying,

Previous studies have shown that there's a relationship between cardiorespiratory fitness and behavioral performance in older adults. Other studies have looked at cardiorespiratory fitness and brain function, but really linking all three of those hasn't quite been done as explicitly as we did in this paper.

In previous studies, higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness have been found to increase of gray matter brain volume in key brain regions as well as improved white matter integrity.  For this new study, the team gathered functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans from paricipants and found that certain regions of the brain were activated more when performing two simultaneous tasks when compared to a single task.

"The reason we looked at dual-task specifically is because it's a measure of executive function, which is required for multiple cognitive processes, such as working memory, task management, coordination, and inhibition," said Wong. "We know that as people age, executive function declines, so we found that with higher cardiorespiratory fitness, you can enhance executive function performance behaviorally as well as executive function-related brain activation."

Conclusion: Staying Physically Fit Is Good for Your Brain and Cognitive Flexibility

Previous research from the Beckman Institute, and others, has found a correlation between regular exercise, higher levels of physical fitness, and improved brain function and structure thoughout various stages of life. This new study reveals a clear connection between brain activation, cardiorespiratory fitness, and executive function in older adults.

If there is one simple lifestyle choice you can make to improve your brain function and structure, physical fitness should be at the top of your list. Higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness are associated with better cognitive performance and enhanced brain function. Higher cardiorespiratory fitness is also associated with improved cognitive flexibility as represented by greater activation during dual-task processing and performance.

"This research adds to our growing understanding of the relationship among physical activity and cognitive and brain function—and suggests that we can improve our brain health by changing our lifestyle even as we age," Kramer concluded. 

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

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