A new Australian study suggests a simple change to a daily routine can improve decision-making among older individuals. Researchers discovered a morning moderate-intensity workout improves cognitive performance across the day for individuals aged 55 to 80 as compared to prolonged sitting without exercise.
Furthermore, the study showed that a morning bout of exercise combined with brief light-intensity walking breaks to frequently disrupt sitting throughout an 8-hour day can boost short-term memory when compared to uninterrupted sitting.
The “Brain Breaks” study, led by the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute and The University of Western Australia, appears in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Study results suggest distinct responses in cognitive performance to exercise versus exercise and sitting breaks. Scientists believe this may mean that different patterns of physical activity can enhance distinct aspects of cognition.
Methodologically, the study of more than 65 males and females aged 55 – 80 years examined the effects of acute morning exercise on a treadmill with and without brief 3-minute walking breaks during an 8-hour day of prolonged sitting. The cognitive effects of exercise versus no exercise and prolonged sitting were also compared.
Investigators assessed aspects of cognition and concentration including psychomotor function; attention; executive function such as decision-making; visual learning and working memory.
As background, scientists believe a specific brain-derived protein is important for the survival and growth of information transmitting nerve cells (neurons) in the brain. This protein is called a neurotropic growth factor. Exercise is believed to stimulate the brain to create more of the information transmitting cells and as a result improve cognitive performance such as decision-making.
In the study, researchers discovered that the protein was elevated for 8 hours during both exercise conditions, relative to prolonged sitting.
Physical activity researcher and doctoral student Michael Wheeler said the study highlights that uninterrupted sitting should be avoided to maintain optimal cognition across the day, and that moderate-intensity exercise such as a brisk walk should be encouraged for the daily maintenance of brain health.
He said the study also reveals that not all aspects of cognition respond in the same way to a given dose of exercise and that it may be possible to manipulate the pattern of activity across the day to optimize specific cognitive outcomes.
“With an aging population which is looking to live healthier for longer, these studies are critical to people enjoying a productive and satisfying quality of life,” Wheeler said.
“This study highlights how relatively simple changes to your daily routine could have a significant benefit to your cognitive health. It also reveals that one day we may be able to do specific types of exercise to enhance specific cognitive skills such as memory or learning.”