Exercise and the Elderly – does physical activity lead to better memory?

Do you feel like your memory and thinking are more muddled than expected? There’s good news then coming out of the University of British Columbia. A recent UBC study reported in the New York Times reaffirms the significant role that exercise plays in healthy living especially as we age. Researchers conducted a six-month RCT studying the impact of physical activity on the verbal and spatial memory in older adults with probable mild cognitive impairment.

Cognitive decline has become one of the world’s most pressing health care issues and by 2040, 80 million people will be affected (1).  In the time it takes to read this paragraph another new case of dementia will be detected worldwide -one every seven seconds (1).

Photo by mcohen.chromiste. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Source: flickr

Photo by mcohen.chromiste. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Source: flickr

In the UBC study, eighty-six women, aged 70 to 80 years with subjective memory complaints, were randomized into one of three groups: resistance training, aerobic training, or balance and tone (control). All participants exercised twice per week for six months.

The study’s results were significant. Participants who did aerobic training remembered significantly more items on the verbal memory test. Both aerobic and resistance training improved reaction times during the spatial memory test compared to the control group. Lastly, spatial memory performance appears to be positively associated with physical performance in the aerobic training group after the intervention. While the researchers did find performance improvements after six months using a twice-weekly exercise protocol comparable changes were not seen after only three months.

Even though physical limitations may often prevent older people from engaging in vigorous high intensity aerobic training, health benefits are apparent with less intense forms of exercise (2, 3).  Chapter 44 in Clinical Sports Medicine explores in detail how to work with the older person who exercises. Authored by Jack Taunton, Wendy Cook, Callista Haggis, and Jacqueline Close, Chapter 44 focuses on…

  • successful aging with the evidence for considerable physiological and psychological benefits of exercise
  • how to minimize associated risks
  • the potential interactions between commonly used medications by elders and exercise

For older adults who undertake no physical activity the first goal of any exercise prescription needs to be to simply reduce their sitting time. Often one achieves success here by creating opportunities for brief activity. Park further away at shopping centers and for appointments. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Even brief 5-10 minute walks several times a day are excellent ways to get started.

Step by step, the important thing to remember is that every little bit helps. As a guide, the clinician can help clients set easily attainable short-term goals and to increase time spent being active by no more than five percent per week. Making exercise routine takes time and one needs to set a solid foundation for success.

For elders who are generally active, begin by increasing the volume of aerobic exercise or resistance training. Chapter 44 has further information on proper protocols for moving forward as well as potential problems associated with medications such as beta blockers, other cardiac drugs, NSAIDs, and insulin and oral hypoglycemic drugs.

For more exercise prescriptions for older adults you can also turn to Chapter 60 in Clinical Sports Medicine.


  1. C. P. Ferri, M. Prince, C. Brayne et al., “Global prevalence of dementia: a Delphi consensus study,” The Lancet, vol. 366, no. 9503, pp. 2112–2117, 2005. View at Publisher · View at Google Scholar · View at Scopus
  2. Nelson ME, Rejeski WJ, Blair SN et al. Physical activity and public health in older adults: recommendation from the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2007;39(8):1435–45.
  3. Gill TM, DiPietro L, Krumholz HM. Role of exercise stress testing and safety monitoring for older persons starting an exercise program. JAMA 2000;284(3): 342–9.

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