If you are middle-aged or older and feel your mental capabilities are beginning to decline, do not despair, there is something that can make a big difference – exercise rigorously and regularly!
In my last posts I discussed physical exercise as prevention for dementia and the impact of exercise on brain-structure in older people. It goes without saying that if physical exercise has an impact on brain-structure, it will also have an impact on functioning of the brain. I will now turn to the effects of exercise on cognitive skills.
Working on body and mind
The decline of brain-volume is not uniform across the brain as we age and cognitive decline is not uniform across different kinds of cognitive abilities either. Cognitive decline is most prominent in tasks that rely on cognitive speed, episodic memory and executive functions (such as planning, working memory and inhibition).
Research suggests that for people over 60, physical exercise has robust positive impact on cognitive skills, especially skills that depend on the prefrontal cortex and are collectively called executive functions. The positive influence of exercise also extends to cognitive speed and memory functions. The magnitude of the effect seems to vary according to type and duration of physical training.
Training sessions has to last more than 30 minutes to make an impact
One research analyzed 18 studies that all looked at the relationship between aerobic training and cognitive vitality. The result showed that fitness training benefitted cognitive abilities significantly, regardless of the type of cognitive task and the training method. The positive impact of training was largest for executive functions. The result also showed that those who combined strength- and aerobic training improved to a greater degree than those who did only aerobic training. No difference was seen between groups that had trained for 1-3 months and 4-6 months, but the best result was seen in the group that had trained for six month or longer. Training sessions that lasted less than 30 minutes did not show any effect.
Mountain hiking is an excellent way to combine strength- and aerobic training. In Iceland, my native country, we are blessed with abundance of mountains. Here is a picture from my last hike.
-Kramer, A. F., Hahn, S., Cohen, N. J., Banich, M. T., McAuley, E., Harrison, C. R. o.fl. (1999). Ageing, fitness and neurocognitive function. Nature, 400 (6743), 418-419.
-Colcombe, S. og Kramer, A. F. (2003). Fitness effects on the cognitive function of older adults. Psychological Science, 14 (2), 125-130.