Older adults who participated in a moderate exercise program for 1 year improved cognitive functioning, according to a study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience (2010; 2 [Article 32], 1–17; doi:10.3389/fnagi.2010.00032). To compare the cognitive effects of aerobic training with those of stretching, toning and balance (STB) training among older adults, researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recruited 65 subjects ranging in age from 59 to 80 years. Subjects reported having engaged in very little physical activity in the previous 6 months. Investigators divided the subjects into two groups: a walking group and a control group that performed STB exercises. At baseline, during the study and at its conclusion, the researchers used MRI scans to examine structural and functional aspects of the brain, and exercise tests to measure physical fitness.

Over 1 year, walking group members worked up to 40 minutes of walking per session, completing three sessions per week. STB training group members performed a variety of exercises for the same amount of time. Data analysis after 1 year showed that participants in both the aerobic and nonaerobic training groups experienced improvements in functional connectivity between different cortices of the brain. Increased functional connectivity was associated with greater improvement in executive functions of the brain. Researchers noted that the length of training was an important factor: walking group members displayed improvements after 12 months of training, but not after 6 months, whereas the STB group showed some changes in functional connectivity after 6 months.

Researchers pointed out that this study provides evidence that exercise can slow the declines in brain functioning that are typically associated with aging. More research was recommended.