Exercise Promotes Brain Fitness in Everyone

Research shows cognitive benefits for young adults.

By Shirley Archer, JD, MA
May 21, 2019

Much research on cardiovascular training for brain fitness focuses on benefits to older adults. A recent randomized clinical trial using parallel groups found that cardio training also increases executive function in adults as young as 20 years old.

Columbia University researchers in New York conducted the study with 132 cognitively normal adults—aged 20–67—with below-median aerobic capacity. Subjects were randomly assigned to either an aerobic exercise group or a stretching and toning group; they trained four times a week for 24 weeks.

Brain imaging showed significant increases in gray matter among aerobic exercise participants, independent of age. On tests of executive function, all subjects in the aerobic group showed significant improvement, with more pronounced increases occurring among older adults. Study author Yaakov Stern, PhD, suggested why this was the case: “Executive function usually peaks around age 30,” said Stern, chief of cognitive neuroscience in the Department of Neurology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

“I think that aerobic exercise is good at rescuing lost function, as opposed to increasing performance in those without a decline.”

The study appeared in Neurology (2019; doi:10.1212/WNL.0000000000007003).

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Shirley Archer, JD, MA

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