Regular exercise is often touted as the best way to slow down the cognitive decline that comes with aging. The idea is that getting the heart pumping through aerobic exercise promotes the growth of new blood vessels, including in the brain. Strength training also triggers healthy cellular and molecular changes that can influence brain health. The increased blood flow to the brain and positive changes in chemical signals then help prevent dementia.
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a key chemical partner that increases in concentration when older adults exercise. Older adults who have higher BDNF concentrations in their blood perform better on cognitive and verbal fluency tests.
So, researchers at the University of Montreal recruited groups of healthy adults aged 60-85 to test whether high-intensity aerobic interval training worked better in combination with upper-body or lower-body strength training to boost BDNF. Each group met to participate in their assigned programs for one-hour sessions, three times a week for eight weeks.
And quite by accident, the team uncovered another option that has a very similar effect to exercise on BDNF levels. Brain-mobilizing activities like walking through obstacle courses and learning to juggle encourage an increase in BDNF to levels that can even exceed the effect of the exercise programs.
But the original point of studying the group of participants assigned to do these tasks was as a control. They needed to come in and interact with the researchers for an equal amount of time as the actual test subjects without getting any fitter or stronger, but the team didn’t want them to get bored.
That’s where the idea for gross motor skills training came into play as a combination of stretching and other mentally-stimulating activities that didn’t require exercise. The activities included a warm-up followed by yoga-style static and dynamic stretching, walking through obstacle courses, juggling or throwing balls at a target to practice coordination, and relaxing through breathing exercises.
This study adds to growing evidence that physical activities that incorporate thought can be a new tool in preserving brain function as people age.
The researchers also assessed cognition as measured by a random number generation test. In the test, participants are asked to create a sequence of numbers in as random a sequence as possible, avoiding any patterns. But this improved cognition could happen even if BDNF levels didn’t change at all, indicating that there are many factors that can contribute.
Future studies will be needed to confirm these results with larger groups of participants, alongside a proper control group where BDNF levels stay the same. But it makes sense that physical activities that are coupled with mental activities would help prevent cognitive decline, and it may offer a new option for older adults who wouldn’t be able to participate in high-intensity exercise.