If you were asked to choose among cardiovascular exercise, resistance training and a combination of both to help people with Alzheimer’s disease, what choice would you make?

Researchers from the University of Connecticut wanted to understand the effects of exercise—if any—on cognitive decline in those at risk of or diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The scientists performed a meta-analysis of 19 studies (23 exercise interventions) featuring 1,145 adults aged 77 ± 7.5 years.

The researchers found that aerobic exercise produced a moderately favorable effect on cognitive function, and the more exercise sessions participants completed, the greater the benefit. Aerobic exercise plus resistance training yielded small changes, but researchers considered them insignificant. Resistance training on its own had no effects on cognitive decline.

Lead researcher Gregory Panza, MA, exercise physiologist at the University of Connecticut and Hartford Hospital, hypothesized why aerobic exercise proved superior in reducing cognitive decline in at-risk individuals:

“Aerobic exercise may have had larger effects on cognitive function than other types of exercise because aerobic activity increases heart rate more, which [increases] blood flow to the brain, leading to adaptations due to neuroplasticity and the release of chemicals that enhance memory and mental clarity,” Panza told Fitness Journal.

He believes that the current findings can be useful for fitness professionals working with this population.

“Although all types of exercise are important to help older adults keep their independence and perform activities of daily living, a fitness professional who is designing an exercise regimen for a patient or client with a family history of, early signs of or [a diagnosis of] Alzheimer’s disease may want to consider emphasizing aerobic activity as the primary modality in the exercise prescription,” he says.

The report was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (2018; doi:10.1111/jgs.15241).