Single Exercise Session Boosts Cognition, Memory In Older Adults, Study Finds

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Exercise is important at any age, but it’s an especially good idea for older adults to make getting off the couch — at least once in a while — a priority. Keeping our bodies in motion as we age promotes a number of physical benefits, and now a new study conducted at the University of Iowa finds exercise can also boost mental performance in some older adults — after just one trip to the gym.

Just a single session of exercise improved cognitive performance and working memory in older study participants, and researchers noted that most older adults enjoyed the same level of mental improvement from just one exercise bout as they did from regular and frequent exercise.

“One implication of this study is you could think of the benefits day by day,” explains corresponding author Professor Michelle Voss in a media release. “In terms of behavioral change and cognitive benefits from physical activity, you can say, ‘I’m just going to be active today. I’ll get a benefit.’ So, you don’t need to think of it like you’re going to train for a marathon to get some sort of optimal peak of performance. You just could work at it day by day to gain those benefits.”

The idea that exercise can provide a mental benefit isn’t a new concept; lots of previous research has found a connection, but the results have been varied and inconsistent. Furthermore, there hadn’t been much investigation at all regarding the effect of a single exercise session on older adults.

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With this in mind, Voss and her team set out to measure how just one exercise session affects older adults’ brain functions. A total of 34 participants, all between the ages of 60-80, were gathered. Each person was generally healthy, but did not regularly exercise.

Each participant rode a stationary exercise bike two separate times. The first session was more light and casual, while the second session was more strenuous and at a higher pace. After each session, study subjects were given a brain scan and a memory test to complete.

After just one exercise session on the stationary bike, some participants displayed increased connectivity between the areas of the brain (parietal cortex, medial temporal, prefrontal cortex) associated with memory and cognition. Unsurprisingly, those same participants also scored higher on memory tests compared to others. However, other participants appeared to gain little to no mental boost from the exercise sessions.

It’s also worth noting that among those who did display a mental boost, the effects were short lived and seemed to fade away rather quickly.

“The benefits can be there a lot more quickly than people think,” Voss comments. “The hope is that a lot of people will then keep it up because those benefits to the brain are temporary. Understanding exactly how long the benefits last after a single session, and why some benefit more than others, are exciting directions for future research.”

Researchers also held a more-long term exercise experiment, in which the same participants used a stationary bike for 50 minutes three times per week for a total of three months. For this experiment, the participants were split into groups; one group was told to pedal semi-leisurely, while the other group pedaled in a more intense and strenuous manner.

After three months, most participants across both groups enjoyed mental benefits from the exercise. But, interestingly, their observed mental improvements were no greater than after a single exercise session during the first portion of the study.

“The result that a single session of aerobic exercise mimics the effects of 12 weeks of training on performance has important implications both practically and theoretically,” the study reads.

While their findings are significant, the study’s authors admit that their research was hampered by a small subject pool, that included people who may have been dealing with chronic health problems or taking beta-blockers. So, Voss and her team have already initiated a new five-year long-term study on exercise and its mental benefits with a larger participant pool.

The study is published in the scientific journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

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