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Combine exercises to improve cognitive function: study

Older Australians who hope to improve brain health and function will gain the most benefits by combining aerobic and resistance exercise, a new study has found.

The team behind the research, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, analysed 39 studies published to the end of 2016 and looked at the impact of different forms of exercise on overall brain capacity, attention, executive function, memory, and working memory.

The team focussed on aerobic exercise; resistance training, such as using weights; multicomponent exercise, which contains elements of both aerobic and resistance training; tai chi; and yoga.

Overall, the team found physical exercise improved cognitive function in over 50s, regardless of the cognitive status of participants.

Lead author Joe Northey, from the University of Canberra’s Research Institute for Sport and Exercise, said the evidence is strong enough to recommend prescribing both aerobic and resistance exercise to improve brain health in people over 50 years of age.

“Aerobic exercise was associated with enhanced cognitive abilities, while resistance training was significantly associated with improvements in executive function, memory, and working memory,” Northey said.

He added tai chi was also shown to improve cognitive abilities but, as this was based on just a few studies, the findings will need to be confirmed in a larger clinical trial. “Because of tai chi’s low impact nature, it is really accessible to people who might not be able to do more intensive exercise, so finding that it is associated with improved brain health and capacity is great news for a lot of people.”

Northey suggested that an exercise program featuring both aerobic and resistance training, including at least moderate intensity and lasting upwards of 45 minutes per session, on as many days of the week as possible, is going to benefit cognitive function in people aged over 50.

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