Cognitive impairment is characterised by a decline in cognitive abilities. Symptoms include a measurable decline in memory and thinking skills. Even the ability to make decisions may be affected depending on how severe the condition is. It’s estimated that approximately 15 to 20% of people aged 65 or older have mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
While the benefits of exercise are well-known – weight loss, lower blood pressure, and reduced risk of heart disease to name a few – research is now revealing a strong correlation between physical activity and cognitive function.
Researchers from Duke University conducted an extensive study involving 160 sedentary men and women with some form of cognitive impairment. Each of the participants’ thinking and memory abilities were evaluated using standardised cognitive tests before the study began and after it concluded.
Participants were then randomly assigned into the following groups:
- Aerobic exercise that stimulates the heart (e.g. jogging, swimming, etc.)
- DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension)
- Both aerobic exercise and DASH diet
- Health education delivered by phone
Aerobic exercise consisted of walking, jogging or cycling on a stationary bicycle three times a week for 35 minutes for the duration of the study.
The researchers found that those assigned to the exercise groups showed significant improvements in cognitive function compared to those who did not. Meanwhile, those who were part of the DASH diet showed no improvements. And those who only received health education faired more poorly, showing a decline on executive function tests.
‘The results are encouraging in that in just six months, by adding regular exercise to their lives, people who have cognitive impairments without dementia may improve their ability to plan and complete certain cognitive tasks,’ said James Alan Blumenthal, first author of the study.
Putting it Into Action
The message is clear: regular exercise has a lasting positive impact on cognitive functions. Even a small commitment of aerobic exercise three times a week was enough to make a noticeable difference after just six months.
So what should you do? Make exercise a habit and incorporate it as part of your daily routine. The key is to start small and gradually ramp up your efforts until you reach your goals.