Different exercise programs may be appropriate for different goals, but for those who work out with the goal of increasing mental alertness, getting moving is all that matters, according to a new study from the University of Montreal.
The research team targeted executive functions, which allow us to adapt to a constantly changing environment and are used in planning, organizing, strategizing, observing details and retaining information.
"For a long time, it was believed that only aerobic exercise could improve executive functions," says exercise physiologist Dr. Nicholas Berryman.
"More recently, science has shown that strength training also leads to positive results. Our new findings suggest that structured activities that aim to improve gross motor skills can also improve executive functions, which decline as we age."
Working with a group of 51 participants whose average age was 70, Dr. Berryman and his team assigned two groups to a high-intensity aerobic and strength training program and a third group to perform tasks that targeted coordination, balance and flexibility.
After 10 weeks, only the two groups undergoing the aerobics and strength training intervention made strides in their physical fitness in terms of body composition, strength and VO2 max (peak oxygen uptake).
The three groups, however, showed equal improvement in cognitive performance, which is good news for sedentary folk who don't enjoy exercise, according to Dr. Berryman.
He advises those looking to improve their cognitive health to do any gross motor activity, which in addition to coordination, balance and flexibility includes locomotive tasks and low-impact ball games.
"I would like seniors to remember that they have the power to improve their physical and cognitive health at any age and that they have many avenues to reach this goal," says Dr. Berryman.
The study was published in the journal Age.