Low impact exercise improves brain functionExperts agree that it is important to exercise, especially for older adults. But does the type of exercise make a difference? Research from the University of Montreal’s Institute of Geriatrics finds that older adults can receive the same cognitive benefits from low-impact activities like walking or stretching as from high-intensity aerobic and strength training. The findings indicate that it is possible for older adults at any level of fitness to sharpen their minds.

The researchers evaluated adults aged 62 to 84 years who participated in a 10-week program. They divided the participants into three groups. Two groups performed high-intensity aerobic and strength training exercises, respectively. The third group performed tasks that targeted gross motor skills like balance, coordination, and flexibility. The researchers evaluated the participants’ executive functions—a cognitive skillset that impacts a person’s ability to plan, pay attention, and remember details—and compared the abilities of each group.

After the program, the aerobics and strength training groups improved on various measures of physical fitness. The gross motor skills group did not exhibit physical improvements. However, all three groups demonstrated comparable levels of cognitive performance improvements. This suggests that, for older adults, the type of exercise that an individual does is less important than whether or not an individual exercises at all.

These results are good news for adults who may have limited access to exercise equipment, mobility issues, or other factors barring them from high-intensity exercise. Multiple studies have demonstrated the benefits of aerobic and strength exercise, but this study indicates that older adults can benefit from a wide range of physical activities like walking or stretching.

“Our new findings suggest that structured activities that aim to improve gross motor skills can also improve executive functions, which decline as we age. I would like seniors to remember that they have the power to improve their physical and cognitive health at any age and that they have many avenues to reach this goal,” stated study author Dr. Nicholas Beryman, Ph.D., exercise physiologist.

This research is published in the journal Age.

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