Cardiac Fitness Helps Keep Your Brain In Shape

Great news for older fitness fiends! According to a new study, older adults who scored high on a cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) tests outperformed their peers with low CRF on memory tests. It seems they are exercising their minds as well as their muscles.

The study believed to be the first of its kind was published in the journal Cortex. Its findings showed the fitter older adults were, the more active their brain was during learning. Difficulty remembering new information is a lead indicator of the early onset of Alzheimer’s, as is decreased memory performance overall.

Participants in the research comprised healthy young (18-31 years) and older adults (55-74 years) with a wide range of fitness levels. They were asked to walk or jog on a treadmill while researchers evaluated their cardiorespiratory fitness by measuring the ratio of inhaled and exhaled oxygen and carbon dioxide. Subjects also had MRI scans taken of their brains while they learned tried to remember names linked to unfamiliar faces in a test.

Unsurprisingly, the research team discovered older adults had more difficulty learning and remembering the correct name associated with each face than did younger adults. Age differences in brain activation were observed during the learning of the face-name pairs, with older adults showing decreased brain activation in some regions and increased brain activation in others.

The study discovered the degree to which older adults demonstrated these age-related changes in memory performance and brain activity depended largely on their fitness level. Fitter older adults showed better memory performance and increased brain activity patterns compared to their less-fit peers.

This increased brain activation amongst fitter older adults was observed in regions of the brain that show typical age-related decline suggesting fitness may contribute to brain maintenance. Fitter older adults also demonstrated greater activation in some brain regions than did young adults, suggesting fitness may perform a compensatory role in age-related memory and brain decline.

Corresponding author Scott Hayes, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and the Associate Director of the Neuroimaging Research for Veterans Center at the VA Boston Healthcare System commented, “Importantly, CRF is a modifiable health factor that can be improved through regular engagement in moderate to vigorous sustained physical activity such as walking, jogging, swimming, or dancing. Therefore, starting an exercise program, regardless of one’s age, can not only contribute to the more obvious physical health factors but may also contribute to memory performance and brain function.” According to the research team, this study highlights CRF’s importance not only for physical health but also oxygen concentrator needs for enhanced brain function and memory performance.


The researchers caution that maintaining high levels of fitness through physical activity will not entirely eliminate or cure age, or indefinitely stave off Alzheimer’s related decline, but it may slow the rate of decline. Future studies following individuals’ fitness and physical activity levels, memory, and brain function over several years would more directly illustrate this issue.

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