Higher fitness levels boost brain power in the elderly: Study

Higher fitness levels boost brain power in the elderly: StudyResearchers from the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology have revealed a link between high levels of cardiorespiratory fitness, brain activity and executive function in the elderly.

Cardiorespiratory endurance is the ability of the heart and lungs to absorb, transport and utilize oxygen over an extended period of time. A person with a high cardiorespiratory fitness level can perform more intense exercises for longer periods of time – while using less oxygen.


A person can improve their cardiorespiratory endurance through physical conditioning and aerobic exercises like walking, running, cycling, swimming and group fitness aerobic classes. Aerobic training is best suited to improve cardiorespiratory endurance because it increases the size and number of mitochondria in the muscle cells. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of cells and are necessary for energy production.

Cardiorespiratory fitness level effect on executive functions of the brain

Cardiorespiratory fitness level effect on executive functions of the brainAging is often associated with cognitive decline, but previous research has shown that higher cardiorespiratory fitness levels among the elderly can boost brain power and increase brain volume.

First author of the paper Chelsea Wong said, “Previous studies have shown that there’s a relationship between cardiorespiratory fitness and behavioral performance in older adults. Other studies have looked at cardiorespiratory fitness and brain function, but really linking all three of those hasn’t been quite been done as explicitly as we did in this paper.”

Brain images and fitness level data was analyzed from 128 adults between the ages of 59 and 80.

FMRI scans allowed researchers to locate which regions of the brain were activated when a person was partaking in two simultaneous activities as opposed to one. Wong added, “The reason we looked at dual-task specifically is because it’s a measure of executive function, which is required for multiple cognitive processes, such as working memory, task management, coordination, and inhibition. We know that as people age, executive function declines, so we found that with higher cardiorespiratory fitness, you can enhance executive function performance behaviorally as well as executive function-related brain activation.”

This is yet another study which reveals the benefits of physical activity, especially among the elderly, as a mean to not only boost brain power but benefit overall health.

Effects of impaired executive functions in elderly

Executive function is a set of mental skills which allow us to complete tasks. Executive function is used in scenarios like time management, paying attention, planning, organizing and remembering details.

When executive functions become impaired – especially in the elderly – there can be negative effects associated with these changes. Effects of impaired executive functions in the elderly are:

  • Socially inappropriate behavior
  • Inability to apply consequences from past actions
  • Difficulty with abstract concepts
  • Difficulty planning and getting plans started
  • Inability to multitask
  • Difficulty processing, storing and retrieving information
  • Others begin to monitor the appropriateness of your actions
  • Moody
  • Lack of concern towards people or animals
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Unawareness or denial of personal behavior problems
  • Antisocial behavior
  • Trouble with future planning

Cardiorespiratory endurance exercises to improve brain power

Cardiorespiratory endurance exercises to improve brain powerImproving brain power is as easy as boosting your cardiorespiratory endurance, which no matter your current fitness level can start off low and develop further over time. Here is a list of best cardiorespiratory exercises in order to improve brain power.

  • Walking
  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Jogging/Running

These activities can be started by beginners, and as cardiorespiratory endurance improves the activities can be done more intensely.

Additional health benefits of high cardiorespiratory endurance

Aside from a boost in brain power and better executive function, there are other health benefits associated with high cardiorespiratory endurance, including:

  • Lower risk of cardiovascular disease – improved heart function
  • Increase in lifespan
  • Reduced risk of type-2 diabetes
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Increase in bone density
  • Higher self-esteem
  • More positive body image
  • Reduction in body fat
  • Lower cholesterol
  • Improved sleep
  • More energy
  • Lower incidence of osteoporosis

As you can see cardiorespiratory exercises can help promote better health overall by improving the function of many important organs and aspects of health.

Additional ways to improve executive functions of the brain

Additional ways to improve executive functions of the brainSimilar to how you can improve brain function through cardiorespiratory endurance, you can also improve executive function as well. Here are some tips to improve executive functions of the brain.

  • Take a step-by-step approach to work
  • Rely on visual organization tools
  • Use time organizers, computers and alarms
  • Make schedules and check them throughout the day
  • Ask for written instructions when given instructions orally
  • Plan for transition times and shifts
  • Create checklists
  • Break down long assignments into smaller parts
  • Use calendars
  • Write due dates on assignments
  • Have separate work areas for different projects
  • Keep work space organized
  • Minimize clutter

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Author Bio

Emily Lunardo studied medical sociology at York University with a strong focus on the social determinants of health and mental illness. She is a registered Zumba instructor, as well as a Canfit Pro trainer, who teaches fitness classes on a weekly basis. Emily practices healthy habits in her own life as well as helps others with their own personal health goals. Emily joined Bel Marra Health as a health writer in 2013.