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Aerobic Exercise, Thinking Skills, and the Brain

Once again a study found benefits from exercise - specifically that regular exercise is better for the brain and for thinking skills (for "executive function"). Executive function is a person's ability to regulate his or her own behavior, pay attention, manage new information and unexpected challenges, to plan, organize, and achieve goals. Executive functioning can decline in older adults - "age-related declines". So it's definitely beneficial to prevent or slow down a decline in thinking skills.

In this study 132 individuals (aged 20 to 67 years) living in New York City were either randomly assigned to a stretching group or an aerobic exercise group for 6 months. They were given a number of tests (at the start, at 3 mos, and at 6 mos.) to measure executive function, memory, IQ, etc. After 6 months the aerobic exercise group had a number of benefits (compared to the stretching group): they reduced their BMI (body mass index), they increased the cortical thickness in a part of their brain (this is good), and they had improved executive function thinking. The researchers found that the aerobic exercise showed more benefit to older adults than the younger adults.

How much did the aerobic group exercise? The individuals had 4 sessions a week of aerobic exercise (stationary cycling, treadmill, elliptical machine) which consisted of 10 to 15 minutes of warm-up/cool down, and 30 to 40 minutes of exercise. Note that at the start of the study all persons were healthy, sedentary non-exercisers - with "below median aerobic capacity". Meaning that there is hope for all of us to benefit from regular exercise whether a young adult or over 60.

For those persons that dread going to a gym or spend money for exercise equipment  - you don't need it! Just get out and walk briskly, or ride a bicycle, climb stairs regularly - in other words, move! The goal is to get your heart pumping. From Science Daily -

Exercise may improve thinking skills in people as young as 20

Regular aerobic exercise such as walking, cycling or climbing stairs may improve thinking skills not only in older people but in young people as well, according to a study published in the January 30, 2019, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. The study also found that the positive effect of exercise on thinking skills may increase as people ageThe specific set of thinking skills that improved with exercise is called executive function. Executive function is a person's ability to regulate their own behavior, pay attention, organize and achieve goals.

"As people age, there can be a decline in thinking skills, however our study shows that getting regular exercise may help slow or even prevent such decline," said study author Yaakov Stern, PhD, of Columbia University in New York, and a member of the American Academy of Neurology. "We found that all participants who exercised not only showed improvements in executive function but also increased the thickness in an area of the outer layer of their brain."

The study involved 132 people between the ages of 20 and 67 who did not smoke or have dementia but who also did not exercise at the start of the study and were determined to have below average fitness levels. Participants were randomly assigned to six months of either aerobic exercise or stretching and toning four times a week. The two groups were equally balanced for age, sex, education as well as memory and thinking skills at the start of the study. All participants either exercised or stretched and toned at a fitness center and checked in weekly with coaches monitoring their progress. They all wore heart rate monitors as well. Participants' thinking and memory skills were evaluated at the start of the study as well as at three months and at the end of the six-month study.

Participants in the exercise group chose from aerobic activities including walking on a treadmill, cycling on a stationary bike or using an elliptical machine. They ramped up their activity during the first month, then during the remainder of the six-month study they trained at 75 percent of their maximum heart rate. People in the stretching and toning group did exercises to promote flexibility and core strength. Researchers measured participants' aerobic capacity using a cycling machine called an ergometer that estimates exercise intensity. Participants also had MRI brain scans at the start and end of the study.

Researchers found that aerobic exercise increased thinking skills. From the beginning of the study to the end, those who did aerobic exercise improved their overall scores on executive function tests by 0.50 points, which was a statistically significant difference from those who did stretching and toning, who improved by 0.25 points. At age 40, the improvement in thinking skills was 0.228 standard deviation units higher in those who exercised compared to those who did stretching and toning and at age 60, it was 0.596 standard deviation units higher.

"Since a difference of 0.5 standard deviations is equivalent to 20 years of age-related difference in performance on these tests, the people who exercised were testing as if they were about 10 years younger at age 40 and about 20 years younger at age 60," Stern said. He added, "Since thinking skills at the start of the study were poorer for participants who were older, our findings suggest that aerobic exercise is more likely to improve age-related declines in thinking skills rather than improve performance in those without a decline."

Researchers also found an increase in the thickness of the outer layer of the brain in the left frontal area in all those who exercised, suggesting that aerobic exercise contributes to brain fitness at all ages. Overall, researchers did not find a link between exercise and improved memory skills. However, those with the genetic marker for dementia, the APOE ?4 allele, showed less improvement in thinking skills.

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