By Daniel Lithwick,

Exercise is healthy. This is a simple and intuitive statement that has been supported by robust data and empirical evidence. This concept has generally been linked to longevity through improved musculoskeletal and cardiac function. However, more recently researchers have been investigating exercise and it’s link to improved cognitive function.

An unfortunate fact of life is the cognitive decline experienced with aging. Therefore, the majority of research in this area has been conducted on middle-aged adults. Chapman et. al, conducted a randomized control trial with healthy sedentary adults aged 57-75 years, in which participants were randomized into a physical training or wait-list control group. The physical training program was designed to meet the 2008 physical activity guidelines for healthy sedentary adults of 150 minutes/week. Cognitive gains, measured in immediate and delayed memory performance, were found in addition to improved cerebral blood flow and cardiovascular fitness. (1)

Exercise in this population has been found to have preventive effects, as well as improvements in unhealthy individuals. Hu et. al, studied a population consisting of adults over the age of 65 who were found to have mild cognitive impairments, by randomizing participants to a control group or experimental (exercise) group in which 30 minutes of jogging and 60 minutes of shadow-boxing were done once per week. Significant improvements were observed in the experimental group’s immediate memory and delayed recall memory. (2)

Of significant interest for our aging “baby boomer” population are the findings of a Rovio et. al longitudinal study that assessed individuals aged 65-79 years initially and re-assessed at a mean follow-up of 21 years. Leisure-time physical activity of at least 2x/week was associated with a reduced risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. This risk reduction was more pronounced in individuals with ApoE4, the strongest known genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. (3)

Research on exercise and cognitive function in younger adults and adolescents is limited and existing studies typically use smaller sample sizes, however the evidence produced thus far is inspiring. Wendy Suzuki, a neuroscientist from New York University, conducted a novel experiment with students in which she had one group of students perform exercises for one hour, followed by one hour of lecture, while the other (control) group had the same lecture design, without performing exercise. At the beginning and end of the semester, Suzuki had both classes perform a test to measure activity of the part of the brain responsible for learning. Findings were significant with the exercise class able to complete the tasks in the test faster than the control group (4). Research into cognitive improvements in even younger ages has emerged with Palmer et. al finding that after a single bout of exercise preschoolers exhibited a better ability to sustain attention compared to a group that had been sedentary (5)….but maybe sometimes kids just need to get the energy out of their systems before they can do anything.

In a reflection and reaction article on exercise and cognitive function by Petrovitch and White, they profoundly summarized current evidence with the following statement: “Further research is needed to examine mechanisms that underlie the apparently ameliorating effect of exercise on ageing-related brain disease, the relative value of different forms of exercise, and the associations of duration and intensity of exercise with healthy brain ageing.” (6)

At this point in research we already know that engaging in exercise, without over-exertion or over-training, is incredibly positive. The evidence above outlines potential protective effects from the terrible diseases of Alzheimer’s and dementia, which is relatively novel and fascinating. However, for the general healthy population, what is the real take away from this research if we already know that we should be exercising?

MAKE TIME TO EXERCISE. If you’re a high school/undergraduate student immersed in exam season, a graduate student working on a 200 page thesis or a full-time professional in busy season, ensure you are setting aside time in your schedule for activity. Research is showing that you’ll likely see improvements in your work, in addition to your physical well-being.



  1. Chapman, Sandra B., Sina Aslan, Jeffrey S. Spence, Laura F. Defina, Molly W. Keebler, Nyaz Didehbani, and Hanzhang Lu. “Shorter Term Aerobic Exercise Improves Brain, Cognition, and Cardiovascular Fitness in Aging.” Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience 5 (2013)
  2. Hu, Jian-Ping, Yan-Hua Guo, Feng Wang, Xin-Ping Zhao, Quan-Hai Zhang, and Qing-Hua Song. “Exercise Improves Cognitive Function in Aging Patients.” International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine 7.10 (2014): 3144-149.
  3. Rovio, Suvi, Ingemar Kåreholt, Eeva-Liisa Helkala, Matti Viitanen, Bengt Winblad, Jaakko Tuomilehto, Hilkka Soininen, Aulikki Nissinen, and Miia Kivipelto. “Leisure-time Physical Activity at Midlife and the Risk of Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.” The Lancet Neurology 4.11 (2005): 705-11.
  4. Studying the Link between Exercise and Learning.” CNN, 12 Apr. 2010. Web. 27 Jan. 2015. <>.
  5. Palmer, Kara K., Matthew W. Miller, and Leah E. Robinson. “Acute Exercise Enhances Preschoolers’ Ability to Sustain Attention.” Journal of Sport and Exercise Physiology 35 (2013): 433-37.
  6. Petrovitch, Helen, and Lon White. “Exercise and Cognitive Function.” The Lancet Neurology 4.11 (2005): 690-91.