At work, my research project focuses on aging and the elderly so I spend a lot of time sifting through articles that have to do with elderly health. Recently I stumbled upon a perspective review from Nature magazine on the effects of exercising on brain and cognition throughout different ages.
The human studies described in this article are meta-analyses or an analysis that combines results from multiple different studies in order to identify patterns among study results that were not significant on their own.
Recently a meta-analysis of school-age children (4-18 years old) which measured 7 different categories including 1) perceptual skills 2) intelligence quotient 3) achievement 4) verbal tests 5) mathematic tests 6) memory 7) developmental level/academic readiness, showed an overall beneficial relationship between physical activities and cognitive performance. All categories were determined to have a positive relationship except for memory, which was unaffected by physical activity behavior. Although all age groups showed the beneficial effects of physical activity, it was strongest for children in the age ranges of 4-7 years old, suggesting that early physical activities might be important for the improvement and/or maintenance of cognitive function.
It’s interesting to note that there was not a lot of research done on children even though industrialized countries like ours have had a steady increase in unhealthy and unfit children. Even worse for our school children is that when school funding is cut, school sports teams seem to be one of the earlier options to be suspended. Therefore, it’s important for all parents to take note on how much physical activity your children are engaged in to encourage brain development and function!
Unfortunately for the group of individuals falling in the young adult category, there is a very limited amount of research studying the effects of exercise and cognitive function. The lack of research in this specific age group is possibility due to the belief that cognitive health peaks during young adulthood (when people are the most fit, physically and mentally), implying that there is no exercise-related improvement to cognitive function during this age category of the lifespan. However, recent trends of the decline in health in young adults warrant research in changes in brain function and development.
Recent meta-analysis showed that physical activity has a positive effect on cognition for both normal adults and patients with early signs of Alzheimer’s disease (where memory or cognitive ability was mildly impaired). The following graph shows the result of the meta-analysis which shows an increase in 4 different categories between elderly individuals who exercised and individuals who did not exercise.
All of these studies show that aerobic fitness training can have a more beneficial effect compared to nonaerobic exercises, and that 30 minutes of continuous exercise is better than 30 minutes broken up throughout the day. Even though aerobic and continuous exercise shows a greater increase in brain function, I say any exercise is better than no exercise! And the best part about this study? It is NEVER too late to exercise! Even if you start at a later stage in your life, there is research to suggest a positive effect on brain function! So get out there and have some fun!