A 35% increase in physical activity improves memory and cognition in healthy older adults

A randomized controlled trial of elderly individuals shows that improved fitness and cognition can be achieved by increasing daily physical activity to a certain level. The results of the study are published in the journal Alzheimer’s research and therapy.

Study: The effects of a moderate physical activity intervention on physical fitness and cognition in healthy older adults with low levels of physical activity: A randomized controlled trial. Image Credit: Ground Image / Shutterstock


Dementia is a group of conditions characterized by impairment of memory, thinking, and other cognitive and social skills. Subclinical neuropathological changes that occur before the diagnosis of dementia can slowly affect an individual’s cognition, behavior, and physical activity.

Increasing physical activity is considered a promising approach to prevent, or at least delay, cognitive decline and dementia. Some studies have shown that people with low physical activity can achieve cognitive improvement by performing moderate-intensity physical activity for at least six months. In contrast, systematic reviews and meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials have failed to show any positive association between physical activity and cognitive improvement.

In the current randomized controlled trial, scientists investigated whether an induction of 35% or more in physical activity leads to improvements in physical fitness, cognitive functioning, and general well-being in healthy older individuals with a low level of physical activity. . The duration of the trial was nine months.

Test drawing

A total of 102 participants were enrolled for the trial. Participants were randomly classified into two groups. In the intervention group, the COACH method was applied to 69 participants. In the control group, the STRETCH method was applied to 33 participants. Participants were evaluated at baseline and at six- and nine-month follow-up.

The COACH method aimed to increase low to moderate intensity physical activity using a pedometer-based exercise counseling strategy. The method included seven coaching sessions conducted over a six-month period. A follow-up session nine months after the start of the intervention was also included.

Participants in the STRETCH group underwent seven individually guided muscle stretching sessions conducted over a six-month period. This group was treated as the control group.

The study primarily aimed to assess the participant’s physical activity, cognitive function, and physical fitness. Additionally, the study assessed cardiovascular risk factor profile, activities of daily living, frailty, and mental health.

Impact of intervention on physical activity

Participants in the intervention group significantly improved their average number of steps per day. However, no significant changes in self-reported physical activity, physical fitness, and cognitive ability were observed in this group.

At baseline, female participants had a slower walking speed than male participants. However, after the intervention, the female participants achieved a significantly higher walking speed than the control participants. Considering male participants, no significant difference in walking speed was observed between the intervention and control groups.

Impact of the intervention on physical and mental health

In the intervention group, limitations in activities of daily living decreased among participants. Over time, mental health improved among the control group participants.

In terms of frailty, depressive symptoms, and overall mental health, the intervention did not have a significant impact.

Participants with an anticipated increase in physical activity

In the study, a separate comparison was made between participants who achieved or did not achieve an expected improvement in physical activity of 35% or more. Participants who achieved the expected improvement were younger and had a higher level of cognition at baseline.

An increase in physical activity of 35% or more over nine months has been found to significantly improve aerobic capacity, walking speed, global cognition, executive functioning, and verbal memory.

The results of the subgroup analysis revealed that an increase in physical activity of 35% or more resulted in a greater improvement in executive functioning among carriers of the ApoE-ε4 allele compared to noncarriers. Carriers of the ApoE-ε4 allele are at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.


The study results indicate that older people with a low level of physical activity can improve their physical fitness and cognitive function by increasing their physical activity by 35% or more.

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