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

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A randomized controlled trial conducted on elderly individuals shows that an improvement in physical fitness and cognition can be achieved by increasing daily physical activity to a certain level. The trial findings are published in the journal Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy.

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


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

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 activities 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 have investigated whether a 35% or more induction in physical activity leads to an improvement in physical fitness, cognitive functioning, and overall well-being in healthy elderly individuals with a low level of physical activity. The duration of the trial was nine months.  

Trial design

A total of 102 participants were enrolled for the trial. The participants were randomly categorized 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. The participants were assessed at baseline and at six and nine months of 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 period of six months. A follow-up session was also included nine months after the beginning of the intervention.

The participants in the STRETCH group were subjected to seven individually guided muscle stretching sessions conducted for a period of six months. This group was treated as the control group.    

The trial primarily aimed to assess the participant’s physical activity, cognitive function, and physical fitness. In addition, the trial assessed cardiovascular risk factor profile, daily-life activities, frailty, and mental health.

Impact of intervention on physical activity

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

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

Impact of intervention on physical and mental health

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

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

Participants with an intended increase in physical activity

A separate comparison was performed in the trial between participants who did achieve or did not achieve an intended improvement in physical activity of 35% or more. The participants who achieved the intended improvement were younger and had a higher level of cognitive activity at baseline.

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

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


The trial findings indicate that elderly individuals with a low level of physical activity can improve their physical fitness and cognitive functions by increasing physical activity by 35% or more.

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