Regular exercise can help enhance and preserve cognitive abilities in the elderly. Past studies have primarily examined the influence of moderate to high-intensity aerobic exercises lasting six months to a year on executive functions governed by the prefrontal cortex. However, the challenge is to inspire people to consistently participate in such demanding workout regimens.
Expanding on earlier research from the University of Tsukuba and the University of California, Irvine, it’s been observed that even short bouts of light exercise, like walking or yoga, can invigorate the brain and result in short-term boosts in cognitive capabilities. Yet, the long-term effects and the specific processes behind mild aerobic exercises’ impact on the human brain were not thoroughly understood until now.
For this study, a group of healthy middle-aged and older adults (aged 55-78) were randomly divided into two groups: one performed low-intensity bicycle exercise three times a week for three months (exercise group), while the other group continued their normal daily routine (control group). The research team evaluated the participants’ executive function using a Stroop test and assessed prefrontal cortex activity during the task using functional near-infrared spectroscopy before and after the intervention.
The findings revealed that the exercise group exhibited significant improvement in executive function compared to the control group. Notably, when analyzing the data by age, the benefits of mild exercise were particularly pronounced in the older adult group (aged 68-78). The underlying brain mechanism behind this improvement involved an increase in the efficient activation of the prefrontal cortex.
In other words, executive function was high while corresponding brain activation was relatively low. These results suggest that even three months of mild exercise can strengthen the brain’s functional networks, enabling the prefrontal cortex to be utilized more efficiently during the Stroop test.
This groundbreaking discovery highlights the positive impact of stress-free mild exercise over a three-month period in strengthening the prefrontal cortex and enhancing cognitive function among older adults. The findings are expected to contribute to the development of new exercise programs and strategies that improve executive function and are easily accessible for older individuals with low physical fitness levels and limited motivation to exercise.
Reference: “Mild exercise improves executive function with increasing neural efficiency in the prefrontal cortex of older adults” by Kyeongho Byun, Kazuki Hyodo, Kazuya Suwabe, Takemune Fukuie, Min-seong Ha, Chorphaka Damrongthai, Ryuta Kuwamizu, Hikaru Koizumi, Michael A. Yassa and Hideaki Soya, 15 June 2023, GeroScience.
This work was supported in part by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) Grants (18H04081 [H.S.], 21H04858 [H.S.], 12J01926 [K.H.]), the Japan Science and Technology Agent Grant JPMJMI19D5 (H.S.), the Inviting Overseas Educational Research Units in University of Tsukuba (2016-2023), the Incheon National University Research Grant in 2019 (K.B.), and the U.S. National Institutes of Health Grant R01AG053555 (M.A.Y.).