Executive functioning in the brain is of critical importance as it involves learning, working memory, and self-control. With time, all of us will be subject to the deterioration of these skills, but there are ways to maintain proper cognitive functioning for as long as possible.
A study from the University of Wisconsin tested the benefits aerobic exercise has for brain functioning. The study focused on 23 adults between the ages of 45 and 80, self-reporting very little physical activity, and had a documented parental history of Alzheimer’s Disease. Alzheimer’s Disease is shown to be linked to metabolic deficits in the Posterior Cingulate Cortex (PCC) and involves a rapid decline in executive functioning (the set of mental skills that include working memory, self, control, learning, and flexible thinking).
A decline in executive functioning can lead to difficulties in a number of cognitive abilities like focus, managing emotions, following directions, and many others, some of which are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s Disease. Therefore, the research team wanted to see if increases in aerobic exercise would improve the brain’s metabolic abilities (chemical breakdown) and reduce the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease.
The participants were split into two groups: one group was given a brief education on the benefits of regular physical exercise and given no further instructions; the other group was tasked with undertaking three sessions of cardio exercise per week for 26 weeks.
All participants were given an accelerometer (an electronic device that measures changes in speed) to keep track of their regular activity and how much time they spent in sedentary positions. They were asked to go on a 12-hour fast of all substances, including alcohol, food, and medications, before meeting with the research team. The team would take their blood pressure measurements, draw blood samples, and perform brain imaging procedures. Finally, technicians assessed each participant in their capacity to carry out normal executive functioning.
During these sessions, the exercise group (labelled the enhanced physical activity group) ran on the treadmill for 15 minutes. Each week, the time increased by five minutes, finishing with a 50-minute runtime by the end of the 26 weeks. They were monitored for their cardiorespiratory functioning (CRF), the ability of the circulatory and respiratory systems to supply oxygen to muscles during physical activity during each session.
The results of the study showed that increased physical activity improves cognitive functioning and can influence the development of Alzheimer’s Disease. The increase in aerobic activity improved the participants’ cardiorespiratory functioning, which increased the amount of oxygen sent to the brain. The increased oxygen consumption in the brain was found to be related to better executive functioning.
They also found a significant improvement in the brain’s glucose metabolic functions, specifically in the PCC area linked to Alzheimer’s development.
While this research has significant potential for people at risk for Alzheimer’s Disease, the findings may also have implications for everyone. Improvements in executive functioning can benefit anyone. The fact that three sessions per week is all it takes and only requires up to 50 minutes of your time makes for an attainable addition to anyone’s schedule.