Healthgrades for Professionals

Empowering physicians with a patient perspective

Aerobic plus strength training could help keep the brain young

photo of older Asian woman in swimsuit near a body of water
Aerobic and strength training could help keep the brain young, a new study suggests. Image credit: Rob and Julia Campbell/Getty Images.
  • Engaging in both aerobic exercise and strength training can improve cognitive performance in populations aged over 80 years, a new study suggests.
  • Participants who performed only cardio/aerobic exercise fared no better than people who were sedentary at mental acuity tests.
  • The study underscores the value of being physically active as long as possible as one reaches their later years.

A new study from the McKnight Brain Research Foundation, published in the journal GeroScience, finds that for people aged 80 years or older, a combination of cardio/aerobic exercise and strength training may improve cognition.

The study found that people who combined these two types of exercises exhibited higher cognitive performance than people who were sedentary and people who performed cardio exercise alone.

Individuals who engaged in cardio exercise along with strength training — regardless of duration and intensity — were more mentally agile, quicker at thinking, and also had a stronger ability to shift or adapt their thinking as necessary.

What forms of exercise are best for cognitive performance?

The study involved 184 cognitively healthy individuals who were 85 to 99 years old, with a mean age of 88.49 years. Of this group, 98 were women. Their exercise regimens were self-reported, with 68.5% participating in some form of exercise.

Individuals were divided into three groups: people who were sedentary, people who did cardio exercise alone, and people who did both cardio exercise and strength training.

The cognition performance of participants was assessed according to the Montreal Cognitive Assessment battery of tests, designed to measure mild cognitive decline and early dementia signs.

The cardio plus strength training group had the highest overall cognitive performance scores.

The cardio plus strength training group scored significantly better than the sedentary group on coding and symbol search tests.

The cardio plus strength training group also scored significantly better than the cardio-alone group on symbol search, letter fluency, and Stroop Color-Word tests.

The cardio-only group’s test results were the same as the sedentary group.

Risks of a sedentary lifestyle

“Aerobic and strength training are clearly helpful for older adults, even at an advanced age,” said Dr. Eric Lenze, professor and chair of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine, not involved in the current research.

“It’s not unusual,” noted Dr. Lenze, “to slow down with aging, but some degree of physical activity, like regular walking, is important for maintaining function — staying out of the nursing home!”

“Strength training can add to this benefit by keeping elders able to, for example, get up off the toilet. [Such capabilities] are vital for staying independent,” Dr. Lenze pointed out.

Brain health coach and director of the FitBrain Program at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, Ryan Glatt, also not involved in the research, warned of the risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle:

“The risks of sedentary behavior include sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass), reduced physical functioning, an increased risk of falls and fractures, and cognitive impairment.”

Why exercise may support cognitive health

A cross-sectional study such as this looks only for associations. It cannot establish a causal link, such as one between cardio plus fitness and mental acuity. As Dr. Lenze put it, “the authors themselves were careful to describe this as exploratory.”

“It’s not clear how helpful [the exercises] are for improving cognitive function like memory, though,” Dr. Lenze added.

He noted, nonetheless, that both types of exercise “would be expected to improve brain health broadly by improving insulin sensitivity, reducing risk for heart attacks and strokes, and keeping people overall more active.”

Glatt suggested it may be that the two forms of activity affect different areas of the brain, saying: “Previous research has found that exercise benefits the brain in similar ways. However, certain types of exercise have been found to affect certain brain regions.”

“For example,” said Glatt, “prior research has found that resistance training can benefit the function and structure of the frontal lobe, while aerobic exercise can benefit the function and structure of brain regions responsible for memory, such as the hippocampus.”

Cardio vs strength training

Cardio and aerobic exercises are essentially the same exercises viewed from different perspectives. Both increase a person’s heart rate while increasing the amount of oxygen the body uses.

For this reason, cardio/aerobic exercises can improve heart health and lung function.

Examples of cardio/aerobic exercise include walking, running, cycling, and swimming, or the use of cardio equipment such as rowing machines, elliptical trainers, treadmills, and stair climbers.

Strength training, or resistance training, involves causing your muscles to contract against some form of external resistance. Such resistance might be weights, resistance, bands or medicine balls, for example.

The goal of strength training is to increase muscle mass and power, gain joint flexibility, and strengthen bones.

How to exercise safely later in life

For people in their 80s or 90s, care must be taken to avoid injury when exercising.

Glatt said: “Everyone, regardless of age, can have different levels of physical functioning. It is therefore important to seek out guidance from a physical therapist or qualified fitness professional.”

Dr. Lenze recommended exploring The National Institute on Aging website Trusted Source National Institute on Aging Governmental authority Go to source (NIA) for ideas about exercises that are appropriate for the elderly, although it is still wise to consult a fitness professional before beginning any new exercise program.

NIA suggests that older individual:

  • begin slowly with low-intensity exercises
  • properly warm up before and cool down after exercise
  • remain aware of surroundings when outside
  • hydrate — drink water — before, during, and after exercise, even when one does not feel thirsty, as older individuals can be less sensitive to sensations of thirst
  • take care to exercise in appropriate clothes and shoes
  • discuss an exercise plan with your healthcare provider to avoid exacerbating specific health conditions.

This article originally appeared on Medical News Today.

Was this helpful?
View All Healthgrades Orthopedics Professionals Articles
© 2004-2022 Healthline Media UK Ltd, Brighton, UK, a Red Ventures Company. All rights reserved. MNT is the registered trade mark of Healthline Media. Any medical information published on this website is not intended as a substitute for informed medical advice and you should not take any action before consulting with a healthcare professional. See additional information.
MNT copyright image