Adults who are more physically active have greater mental flexibility, new research reports.
On top of this, those who do more exercise have larger brain volumes and more intact white matter.
The new research found that moderate or vigorous physical activity was linked to more variable brain activity in older adults.
It’s known that variable brain activity is linked to performing better on complex cognitive tasks.
Professor Agnieszka Burzynska, who led the research said:
“We looked at 100 adults between the ages of 60 and 80, and we used accelerometers to objectively measure their physical activity over a week.
We found that spontaneous brain activity showed more moment-to-moment fluctuations in the more-active adults.
In a previous study, we showed that in some of the same regions of the brain, those people who have higher brain variability also performed better on complex cognitive tasks, especially on intelligence tasks and memory.”
Participants had their brains scanned and the amount of exercise they’d done over a week recorded.
The microscopic integrity of the brain’s white-matter fibres was also examined.
The white matter is the brain’s cabling: it transmits signals between different areas.
Professor Art Kramer, also a study author, said:
“Our study, when viewed in the context of previous studies that have examined behavioral variability in cognitive tasks, suggests that more-fit older adults are more flexible, both cognitively and in terms of brain function, than their less-fit peers.”
Not only does the study underline the mental benefits of exercise, it also provides another way to assess brain health in aging.
Professor Burzynska said:
“We want to know how the brain relates to the body, and how physical health influences mental and brain health in aging.
Here, instead of a structural measure, we are taking a functional measure of brain health.
And we are finding that tracking changes in blood-oxygenation levels over time is useful for predicting cognitive functioning and physical health in aging.”
One day it may be possible to tell how physically fit a person is by imaging the brain.
The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE (Burzynska et al., 2015).
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Network brain image from Shutterstock