Aerobic Exercise Improves Cognition in Younger Adults, As Early as 20.

Aerobic exercise improves cognitive function in young adults

Bad news for all of you under 40 somethings that just like to lift weights in the gym.  Happily skipping your cardio and assuming it can wait until you are older. Thinking you just need to add in a few weeks’ worth to get ripped for the summer.  It turns out that new research just published in the journal Neurology has shown that aerobic exercise improves cognition in younger adults.  Previous research has shown many benefits for older adults but now we have clinical proof that individuals as young as 20 show marked improvement in executive function with aerobic exercise. 

Executive function relates to your ability to plan, organize and complete tasks including managing your time, staying focused and regulating emotions.  So essentially most everything you need to be a well-functioning, productive, successful person.

In the study 132 people between the ages of 20-67 with below average aerobic capacity (out of shape) were assigned to either a group that did aerobic activity 4 times a week or a group that did stretching and core exercises without aerobic activity.  The study lasted for 6 months. 

For the first two weeks the subject’s exercised at 55-65% of their maximum heart rate, a very gentle introduction to exercise.  They then gradually increased their heart rates so that by week 5 through the end of the study they were working at 75%.  Still a very moderate and comfortable pace.  The subjects could choose what form of aerobic exercise they wanted to perform and wore heart rate monitors to ensure they were working at the appropriate intensity.

At 6 months the subjects in the aerobic exercise group showed significant improvements in their executive function.  Not only did the subjects show improvement at all ages, including as young as 20, the subjects who were 40 tested as if they were 10 years younger, and the subjects who were closer to 60 tested as if they were 20 years younger. 

According to study author Yaakov Stern, PhD “As people age, there can be a decline in thinking skills, however out study shows that getting regular exercise may help slow or even prevent such decline.  We found that all participants who exercised not only showed improvements in executive function but also increased the thickness in an area of the outer layer of their brain.”

What does this mean for you?  One more reason why you can’t skip cardio.  Yes, plenty of articles these days say you can manage your metabolism and optimize training by doing primarily resistance work and incorporating higher intensity techniques such as HIIT.  While those pieces are amazing and belong in your routine for several reasons, good old fashioned sustained aerobic exercise still has a vital place in an optimal fitness and health program.  Protecting and improving executive function being one of the big reasons.  As for all of you 20-40-year old’s, the clock starts ticking earlier then we thought it did and you need to begin banking the benefits in your 20’s, or however old you are while you are reading this.  Now get up and go do your cardio.

Stern, Y., MacKay-Brandt, A., Lee, S., McKinley, P., McIntyre, K., Razlighi, R., Agarunov, E., Bartels, M. and Sloan, R. (2019) Effect of aerobic exercise on cognition in younger adults.  A randomized clinical trial.  Neurology, DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000007003

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