We know that regular exercise benefits fitness overall and heart health in particular, and now a new study from the University of Kansas suggests that even a little exercise can help improve some thinking skills that wane with age. Researchers recruited 101 healthy seniors 65 or older with no cognitive impairments and tested their aerobic capacity, memory and thinking. They then divided the volunteers into three groups to perform supervised brisk walking on a treadmill in a gym for 75, 150 or 225 minutes a week. Those in a fourth group served as controls and didn’t exercise. After 26 weeks, retesting showed improvements in fitness that varied depending on how much time the participants exercised, but it also showed positive trends in two aspects of cognition - the ability to control their attention and to create visual maps of spaces in their heads. No differences in thinking were seen between improvements in those who exercised least and those who put in more time. The conclusion: just a little bit of exercise may be all you need to keep your wits about you as you age.
My take: These are interesting findings, but they don’t yet answer the pressing question of how much exercise – if any – can help delay mental decline in processes such as Alzheimer’s disease. Studies are in the works to determine whether physical activity can serves as an effective primary or secondary intervention, but we’re not likely to know the results for years. While keeping the mind healthy is a priority, the small amount of physical activity that proved beneficial for the brain in this study falls short of what you need for fitness and heart health. I recommend that seniors walk briskly for 45 minute a day. In the meantime, as this study suggests, sufficient exercise to boost heart health and general fitness may also help keep your thinking skills intact.