Physical activity has been associated with improvements in both physical and mental health. The physical benefits of exercise are well documented with it reducing risk of chronic disease and improving functional ability in older adults.
Some research has also found mental benefits associated with physical activity including improved mood and symptoms in people with anxiety and depression. It has also been hypothesised that physical activity might benefit cognitive abilities in older adults and slow cognitive decline however research in the area has had mixed results.
Australian research investigated the association between different intensities of physical activity and muscle strength, and executive functioning and psychomotor performance in older adults.
Participants were community-dwelling adults aged between 50 and 79 years. Their level of physical activity was measured by an accelerometer – an instrument used to measure acceleration. Level of sedentary behaviour was also recorded.
Participants underwent neuropsychological testing to assess set-shifting (cognitive function that involves the ability to shift attention between one task and another) and psychomotor speed (actions involving physical movement related to conscious cognitive processing). Their level of educational attainment was also recorded.
After controlling for confounding factors, researchers found that light physical activity was positively associated with participants’ ability to set-shift.
This study found that light physical activity undertaken by older adults was associated with improved cognitive functioning.
The results suggest that older adults may benefit from being prescribed exercise programs as they age, not only for their physical health, but also for their mind. This suggests even low levels of exercise can benefit cognitive function in older adults so may be attainable even by those who don’t enjoy, or feel they don’t have time, to exercise.