Higher fitness level improves executive brain function

Participants in a study showed better dual-task cognition the more they engaged in physical activity.

By Stephen Feller

CHAMPAIGN, Ill., Sept. 13 (UPI) -- Researchers found in a recent study that higher levels of fitness help increase volume in key regions of the brain and improve executive function, which plays a role in reasoning and problem solving.

While previous studies have shown that fitness helps with cognition by increasing levels of white matter fibers in the brain, the new University of Illinois study looked specifically at its effect on managing multiple tasks.


"The reason we looked at dual-task specifically is because it's a measure of executive function, which is required for multiple cognitive processes, such as working memory, task management, coordination, and inhibition," said Chelsea Wong, a doctoral student at the University of Illinois, in a press release. "We know that as people age, executive function declines, so we found that with higher cardiorespiratory fitness, you can enhance executive function performance behaviorally as well as executive function-related brain activation."

The researchers worked with 128 adults between the ages of 59 and 80, analyzing brain images and fitness level data for them, in the new study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.


Using MRI scans, they found that higher levels of fitness and physical activity led to increased levels of brain activity while doing multiple tasks.

The previous study included 100 adults whose physical fitness was monitored for 7 days, before researchers reviewed data on their brain function and finding that more physical activity resulted in greater white matter connections in the participants brains.

"This research adds to our growing understanding of the relationship among physical activity and cognitive and brain function—and suggests that we can improve our brain health by changing our lifestyle even as we age," said Art Kramer, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Illinois.

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