Mild Exercise & Brain Health

Recent research suggests that stress-free mild exercise three times a week over 3 months can help to significantly improve brain efficiency and cognitive function in healthy middle-aged and older adults, according to a study from the University of Tsukuba and the University of California-Irvine researchers published in the journal GeroScience.

The exercise regimen led to enhanced brain activity and efficiency in the prefrontal cortex, which was more significant among older adults, opening new avenues for the development of new strategies designed with the goal of enhancing brain health/function through mild exercise and physical activity.

Research has shown that maintaining and promoting cognitive function among older adults can be assisted with regular exercise and physical activity. However, most research has been focused on the effects of moderate to high-intensity activities lasting from 6 months to a year on the executive function that is controlled by the prefrontal cortex. In real life, it can be a challenge to keep adults, especially older adults, motivated to engage in and stay adhered to such rigorous routines. 

Building off of prior investigations observing that even brief sessions of stress-free mild exercises like walking and yoga stimulate the brain to yield temporary improvements in cognitive performance, the team wanted to explore the impacts of long-term stress-free mild aerobic exercises on brain function and the underlying mechanisms involved. 

A group of healthy adults between the ages of 55-78 was recruited for this study and they were randomly divided into two groups: a control group that continued with their normal daily routine, and a group that performed low-intensity bicycle exercise 3 times a week for three months. The participants were evaluated for executive function using  Stroop tests, and prefrontal cortex activity was assessed during the tasks using functional near-infrared spectroscopy both before and after the intervention. 

Those in the exercise group exhibited significant improvements in executive function compared to the controls. When the data was analyzed by age, the benefits of mild exercise were found to be more pronounced in the participants between the ages of 68-78 years old, and the underlying brain mechanism behind the improvement involved an increase in the efficient activation of the prefrontal cortex. 

Basically, executive function was high while corresponding brain activation was relatively low, suggesting that just three months of mild stress-free exercise can help to strengthen the brain’s functional networks to enable the prefrontal cortex to be utilized more efficiently. The researchers suggest that these findings reveal the important positive impacts of stress-free mild exercise over a 3-month period in both strengthening and enhancing brain health among older adults. The findings are also expected to contribute to the development of easily accessible programs and strategies that are designed to improve the brain health of older adults that may have low physical fitness levels and/or limited motivation to exercise. 

As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before changing your wellness routine. This article is not intended to provide a medical diagnosis, recommendation, treatment, or endorsement.

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