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The question

Listing all the benefits of exercise takes a long sheet of paper. They include stronger bones and muscles, better weight control, improved mental health, mood enhancement and less risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and some cancers. Do the benefits also include better cognitive functioning after middle age?

This study

The researchers analyzed data from 39 studies of people 50 and older who had been randomly assigned to a supervised exercise program involving aerobic exercise, resistance training (such as working with weights), a combination of aerobic and resistance, tai chi or yoga, or to a program using a non-exercise alternative. No one was excluded based on cognitive status. All studies measured the effects of exercise on cognition, including attention, executive function (skills that help you get things done) and memory.

Standardized neuropsychological tests showed that, compared with non-exercisers, cognitive functioning improved in those who did aerobic or resistance exercise, regardless of cognitive abilities at the start of the study and including those with mild cognitive impairment. Moderate to vigorous physical exercise for 45 to 60 minutes, no matter how frequent, yielded the greatest benefit. Tai chi also improved cognitive function.

Who may be affected?

People 50 and older. Everyone’s brain changes with age, and shrinkage in some areas of the brain can result in memory lapses or difficulty multitasking. The effects vary greatly from person to person. However, research has shown that the brain is capable of regrowth and that an older brain can learn new things, especially with intellectual stimulation.

Caveats

Only a few of the studies assessed the effects of tai chi. The analysis did not determine the best frequency of exercise.

Find this study

Online April 24 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (bjsm.bmj.com; search for “exercise interventions for cognitive function”).

Learn more about

Information on the aging brain is available at nia.nih.gov/health/cognitive-health. Learn more about the benefits of exercise at nihseniorhealth.gov (click on “Health Aging,” then on one of the “exercise” links).

The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals.