Exercise boosts memory and thinking skills in over 50s

24 April 2017

British Journal of Sports Medicine: Exercise interventions for cognitive function in adults older than 50: a systematic review with meta-analysis.

A comprehensive review of research into the effect of exercise on memory and thinking skills, suggests that programmes of physical exercise can help to improve cognitive function in people over 50. The study, published today in the journal British Journal of Sports Medicine, indicates that aerobic exercise, resistance training or a combination of both could lead to better performances on tests of memory and thinking skills.

Researchers at the University of Canberra in Australia, looked at data from 39 trials that investigated the effects of supervised exercise programmes on memory and thinking skills. Each trial involved people over the age of 50 who undertook structured exercise regimes for a period of over four weeks. Only trials that compared the effect of exercise against a control group of participants, who didn’t undertake an exercise programme, were included in the review.

When the team analysed the results of these 39 studies they found that exercise programmes that lasted between 45 and 60 minutes and were of at least moderate intensity, were linked to improved performance on tests of cognitive function. This effect was found for programmes that involved aerobic exercise, resistance training, or a combination of the two. The analysis also indicated that tai-chi might help improve cognition but this finding was based on relatively few studies and the researchers called for more research to explore this further.

Dr David Reynolds, Chief Scientific Officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:

“Regular exercise has a whole range of health benefits and can play an important role in keeping our brains healthy as we age. This review underscores the link between exercise and brain health and, in line with guidance from the NHS, supports the idea that both strength exercises and aerobic activity can be beneficial for people as they get older. While these different types of exercise had positive effects on brain function, they had to be at least moderately intensive – the kind of activity that raises your heart rate and leaves you at least slightly out of breath. “

“Exercising doesn’t have to mean spending lots of time in the gym. The best way of sticking to an exercise programme is to find something that you enjoy. A brisk walk, a game of tennis or going swimming can all form part of an active lifestyle. As well as staying physically active, evidence suggests that there are other things we can do to look after our brain. These include not smoking, controlling blood pressure and cholesterol, only drinking in moderation, eating a balanced diet and staying mentally active.”