SCIENCE
11/03/2014 08:24 am ET Updated Nov 03, 2014

You Don't Have To Hit The Gym To Get A Brain Boost

Jordan Siemens via Getty Images

We know that exercise is good for the brain and body. But what kind of exercise might be best for improving cognitive function? A new study suggests that even mild physical activity can have a powerful effect on boosting brain power.

Researchers from the Institut Universitaire de Gériatrie de Montréal (IUGM), an institution affiliated with the University of Montreal, recently found that gross motor activities were just as effective as more strenuous aerobic and strength-training exercise for improving executive function among healthy older adults.

The research was conducted on three groups of healthy participants between the ages of 62 and 84. Two groups underwent high-intensity aerobics and strength-training, while the third group performed tasks that targeted gross motor abilities, like coordination, balance, ball games, locomotive tasks, and flexibility. All three groups were found to have the same improvements in cognitive function, although only the aerobics and strength-training groups showed improvements in physical fitness after 10 weeks.

Cognitive improvements were found specifically in the domain of executive function, which involves attention regulation, planning, organization, strategy development, and remembering details.

What's so encouraging about the findings is that motor ability tasks can easily be performed at home -- unlike aerobics and strength training in many cases -- and can be practiced by those who are sedentary.

"For a long time, it was believed that only aerobic exercise could improve executive functions," Dr. Nicolas Berryman, PhD, one of the study's authors, said in a statement. "More recently, science has shown that strength-training also leads to positive results. Our new findings suggest that structured activities that aim to improve gross motor skills can also improve executive functions, which decline as we age. I would like seniors to remember that they have the power to improve their physical and cognitive health at any age and that they have many avenues to reach this goal."

The new study fits in with an extensive body of research that has found physical movement to improve cognition. Research has found exercise to protect the brain from brain shrinkage and age-related brain changes, and aerobic exercise has been found to improve cognitive function throughout life, among other physical and mental health benefits.

The findings were published in the journal AGE (American Aging Association).

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