Annals of Behavioral Medicine

, 36:280 | Cite as

Exercise, Fitness, and Neurocognitive Function in Older Adults: The “Selective Improvement” and “Cardiovascular Fitness” Hypotheses

  • Ann L. Smiley-Oyen
  • Kristin A. Lowry
  • Sara J. Francois
  • Marian L. Kohut
  • Panteleimon Ekkekakis
Original Article



Although basic research has uncovered biological mechanisms by which exercise could maintain and enhance adult brain health, experimental human studies with older adults have produced equivocal results.


This randomized clinical trial aimed to investigate the hypotheses that (a) the effects of exercise training on the performance of neurocognitive tasks in older adults is selective, influencing mainly tasks with a substantial executive control component and (b) performance in neurocognitive tasks is related to cardiorespiratory fitness.


Fifty-seven older adults (65–79 years) participated in aerobic or strength-and-flexibility exercise training for 10 months. Neurocognitive tasks were selected to reflect a range from little (e.g., simple reaction time) to substantial (i.e., Stroop Word–Color conflict) executive control.


Performance in tasks requiring little executive control was unaffected by participating in aerobic exercise. Improvements in Stroop Word–Color task performance were found only for the aerobic exercise group. Changes in aerobic fitness were unrelated to changes in neurocognitive function.


Aerobic exercise in older adults can have a beneficial effect on the performance of speeded tasks that rely heavily on executive control. Improvements in aerobic fitness do not appear to be a prerequisite for this beneficial effect.


Stroop Wisconsin Card Sort Test Cardiorespiratory fitness Executive processing Aerobic exercise 



This work was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (R01 AI49956) to M.L.K. and a University Research Grant to A.L.S.-O.


  1. 1.
    Hedden T, Gabrieli JDE. Insights into the ageing mind: A view from cognitive neuroscience. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2004; 5: 87–96.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Park DC, Polk TA, Mikels JA, Taylor SF, Marshuetz C. Cerebral aging: Integration of brain and behavioral models of cognitive function. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. 2001; 3: 151–165.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Barnes DE, Yaffe K, Satariano WA, Tager IB. A longitudinal study of cardiorespiratory fitness and cognitive function in healthy older adults. J Am Geriat Soc. 2003; 51: 459–465.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Laurin D, Verreault R, Lindsay J, MacPherson K, Rockwood K. Physical activity and risk of cognitive impairment and dementia in elderly persons. Arch Neurol. 2001; 58: 498–504.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Lytle ME, Vander Bilt J, Pandav RS, Dodge HH, Ganguli M. Exercise level and cognitive decline: The MoVIES project. Alzheimer Dis Assoc Disord. 2004; 18: 57–64.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    Van Gelder BM, Tijhuis MAR, Kalmijn S, et al. Physical activity in relation to cognitive decline in elderly men: The FINE study. Neurology. 2004; 63: 2316–2321.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    Weuve J, Kang JH, Manson JAE, Breteler MMB, Ware JH, Grodstein F. Physical activity, including walking, and cognitive function in older women. J Am Med Assoc. 2004; 292: 1454–1461.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    Yaffe K, Barnes D, Nevitt M, Lui LY, Covinsky K. A prospective study of physical activity and cognitive decline in elderly women: Women who walk. Arch Intern Med. 2001; 161: 1703–1708.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    Hillman CH, Motl RW, Pontifex MB, et al. Physical activity and cognitive function in a cross-section of younger and older community-dwelling individuals. Health Psychol. 2006; 25: 678–687.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    Van Boxtel MPJ, Paas FGWC, Houx PJ, et al. Aerobic capacity and cognitive performance in a cross-sectional aging study. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1997; 29: 1357–1365.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. 11.
    Fabre C, Chamari K, Mucci P, Massé-Biron J, Préfaut C. Improvement of cognitive function by mental and/or individualized aerobic training in healthy elderly subjects. Int J Sports Med. 2002; 23: 415–421.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    Kramer AF, Hahn S, Cohen NJ, et al. Ageing, fitness and neurocognitive function. Nature. 1999; 400: 418–419.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 13.
    Black JE, Isaacs KR, Anderson BJ, Alcantara AA, Greenough WT. Learning causes synaptogenesis, whereas motor activity causes angiogenesis, in cerebellar cortex of adult rats. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 1990; 87: 5568–5572.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Isaacs KR, Anderson BJ, Alcantara AA, Black JE, Greenough WT. Exercise and the brain: Angiogenesis in the adult rat cerebellum after vigorous physical activity and motor skill learning. J Cereb Blood Flow Metab. 1992; 12: 110–119.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Swain RA, Harris AB, Wiener EC, et al. Prolonged exercise induces angiogenesis and increases cerebral blood volume in primary motor cortex of the rat. Neuroscience. 2003; 117: 1037–1046.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 16.
    van Praag H, Kempermann G, Gage FH. Running increases cell proliferation and neurogenesis in the adult mouse dentate gyrus. Nat Neurosci. 1999; 2: 266–270.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    van Praag H, Shubert T, Zhao C, Gage FH. Exercise enhances learning and hippocampal neurogenesis in aged mice. J Neurosci. 2005; 25: 8680–8685.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 18.
    Berchtold NC, Kesslak JP, Cotman CW. Hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor gene regulation by exercise and the medial septum. J Neurosci Res. 2002; 68: 511–521.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 19.
    Gómez-Pinilla F, So V, Kesslak JP. Spatial learning and physical activity contribute to the induction of fibroblast growth factor: Neural substrates for increased cognition associated with exercise. Neuroscience. 1998; 85: 53–61.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 20.
    Trejo JL, Carro E, Torres-Alemán I. Circulating insulin-like growth factor I mediates exercise-induced increases in the number of new neurons in the adult hippocampus. J Neurosci. 2001; 21: 1628–1634.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. 21.
    Vaynman S, Ying Z, Gómez-Pinilla F. Hippocampal BDNF mediates the efficacy of exercise on synaptic plasticity and cognition. Eur J Neurosci. 2004; 20: 2580–2590.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    Pereira AC, Huddleston DE, Brickman AM, et al. An in vivo correlate of exercise-induced neurogenesis in the adult dentate gyrus. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2007; 104: 5638–5643.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 23.
    Dustman RE, Ruhling RO, Russell EM, et al. Aerobic exercise training and improved neuropsychological function of older individuals. Neurobiol Aging. 1984; 5: 35–42.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    Hawkins HL, Kramer AF, Capaldi D. Aging, exercise, and attention. Psychol Aging. 1992; 7: 643–653.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    Rikli RE, Edwards DJ. Effects of a three-year exercise program on motor function and cognitive processing speed in older women. Res Q Exerc Sport. 1991; 62: 61–67.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. 26.
    Williams P, Lord SR. Effects of group exercise on cognitive functioning and mood in older women. Aust New Zeal J Publ Health. 1997; 21: 45–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 27.
    Blumenthal JA, Emery CF, Madden DJ, et al. Long-term effects of exercise on psychological functioning in older men and women. J Gerontol. 1991; 46: P352–P361.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. 28.
    Hassmén P, Ceci R, Bäckman L. Exercise for older women: A training method and its influences on physical and cognitive performance. Eur J Appl Physiol. 1992; 64: 460–466.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 29.
    Hill RD, Storandt M, Malley M. The impact of long-term exercise training on psychological function in older adults. J Gerontol. 1993; 48: P12–P17.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. 30.
    Madden DJ, Blumenthal JA, Allen PA, Emery CF. Improving aerobic capacity in healthy older adults does not necessarily lead to improved cognitive performance. Psychol Aging. 1989; 4: 307–320.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 31.
    Panton LB, Graves JE, Pollock ML, Hagberg JM, Chen W. Effect of aerobic and resistance training on fractionated reaction time and speed of movement. J Gerontol. 1990; 45: M26–M31.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. 32.
    Dustman RE, Emmerson R, Shearer D. Physical activity, age, and cognitive neuropsychological function. J Aging Phys Act. 1994; 2: 143–181.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    West RL. An application of the prefrontal cortex function theory to cognitive aging. Psychol Bull. 1996; 120: 272–292.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. 34.
    West R. In defense of the frontal lobe hypothesis of cognitive aging. J Int Neuropsychol Soc. 2000; 6: 727–729.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. 35.
    Colcombe S, Kramer AF. Fitness effects on the cognitive function of older adults: A meta-analytic study. Psychol Sci. 2003; 14: 125–130.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. 36.
    Kramer AF, Erickson KI, Colcombe SJ. Exercise, cognition, and the aging brain. J Appl Physiol. 2006; 101: 1237–1242.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. 37.
    Kramer AF, Hahn S, McAuley E. Influence of aerobic fitness on the neurocognitive function of older adults. J Aging Phys Act. 2000; 8: 379–385.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Kramer AF, Colcombe S, Erickson K, et al. Effects of aerobic fitness training on human cortical function: A proposal. J Mol Neurosci. 2002; 19: 227–231.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. 39.
    Etnier JL, Nowell PM, Landers DM, Sibley BA. A meta-regression to examine the relationship between aerobic fitness and cognitive performance. Brain Res Rev. 2006; 52: 119–130.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. 40.
    Kohut M, McCann DA, Russell DW, et al. Aerobic exercise, but not flexibility/resistance exercise, reduces serum IL-18, CRP, and IL-6, independent of β-blockers, BMI, and psychosocial factors in older adults. Brain Behav Immun. 2006; 20: 201–209.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. 41.
    American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins; 2006.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    Rikli RE, Jones CJ. Functional fitness normative scores for community-residing older adults, ages 60–94. J Aging Phys Act. 1999; 7: 162–181.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    Rikli RE, Jones CJ. Senior Fitness Test Manual. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2001.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Sheridan LK, Fitzgerald HE, Adams KM, et al. Normative Symbol Digit Modalities Test performance in a community-based sample. Arch Clin Neuropsychol. 2006; 21: 23–28.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. 45.
    Smith A. Symbol Digit Modalities Test manual, Revised 1982. Los Angeles, CA: Western Psychological Services; 1982.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    Foster C, Jackson AS, Pollock ML, et al. Generalized equations for predicting functional capacity from treadmill performance. Am Heart J. 1984; 107: 1229–1234.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. 47.
    Rikli RE, Jones CJ. The reliability and validity of a 6-minute walk test as a measure of physical endurance in older adults. J Aging Phys Act. 1998; 6: 363–375.Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    Baron RM, Kenny DA. The moderator-mediator variable distinction in social psychological research: Conceptual, strategic, and statistical considerations. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1986; 51: 1173–1182.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. 49.
    Judd CM, Kenny DA. Process analysis: Estimating mediation in treatment evaluations. Eval Rev. 1981; 5: 602–619.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. 50.
    Etnier J. Interrelationships of exercise, mediator variables, and cognition. In: Spirduso WW, Poon LW, Chodzko-Zajko W, eds. Exercise and its Mediating Effects on Cognition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2008: 13–30.Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    Nee DE, Wager TD, Jonides J. Interference resolution: Insights from a meta-analysis of neuroimaging tasks. Cognit Affect Behav Neurosci. 2007; 7: 1–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. 52.
    Buchsbaum BR, Greer S, Chang WL, Berman KF. Meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies of the Wisconsin Card-Sorting Task and component processes. Hum Brain Mapp. 2005; 25: 35–45.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. 53.
    Simmonds DJ, Pekar JJ, Mostofsky SH. Meta-analysis of Go/No-Go tasks demonstrating that fMRI activation associated with response inhibition is task-dependent. Neuropsychologia. 2008; 46: 478–493.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. 54.
    Alvarez JA, Emory E. Executive function and the frontal lobes: A meta-analytic review. Neuropsychol Rev. 2006; 16: 17–42.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. 55.
    Hall EE, Petruzzello SJ. Frontal asymmetry, dispositional affect, and physical activity in older adults. J Aging Phys Act. 1999; 7: 76–90.Google Scholar
  56. 56.
    Colcombe SJ, Erickson KI, Scalf PE, et al. Aerobic exercise training increases brain volume in aging humans. J Gerontol Med Sci. 2006; 61A: 1166–1170.Google Scholar
  57. 57.
    Renaud P, Blondin JP. The stress of Stroop performance: Physiological and emotional responses to color-word interference, task pacing, and pacing speed. Int J Psychophysiol. 1997; 27: 87–97.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. 58.
    Chodzko-Zajko W. National blueprint: Increasing physical activity among adults 50 and older: Implications for future physical activity and cognitive functioning research. In: Poon LW, Chodzko-Zajko W, Tomporowski RD, eds. Active Living, Cognitive Functioning, and Aging. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2006: 1–14.Google Scholar
  59. 59.
    Chodzko-Zajko W, Moore KA. Physical fitness and cognitive functioning in aging. Exerc Sports Sci Rev. 1994; 22: 195–220.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. 60.
    Lie CH, Specht K, Marshall JC, Fink GR. Using fMRI to decompose the neural processes underlying the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test. NeuroImage. 2006; 30: 1038–1049.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. 61.
    Derrfuss J, Brass M, Neumann J, von Cramon DY. Involvement of the inferior frontal junction in cognitive control: Meta-analyses of switching and Stroop studies. Hum Brain Mapp. 2005; 25: 22–34.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. 62.
    Kramer AF, Erickson KI. Capitalizing on cortical plasticity: Influence of physical activity on cognition and brain function. Trends Cogn Sci. 2007; 11: 342–348.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. 63.
    Rhodes JS, van Praag H, Jeffrey S, et al. Exercise increases hippocampal neurogenesis to high levels but does not improve spatial learning in mice bred for increased voluntary wheel running. Behav Neurosci. 2003; 117: 1006–1016.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. 64.
    Aguiar AS Jr, Tuon T, Pinho CA, et al. Intense exercise induces mitochondrial dysfunction in mice brain. Neurochem Res. 2008; 33: 51–58.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. 65.
    Soya H, Nakamura T, Deocaris CC, et al. BDNF induction with mild exercise in the rat hippocampus. Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 2007; 358: 961–967.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. 66.
    Colcombe SJ, Erickson KI, Raz N, et al. Aerobic fitness reduces brain tissue loss in aging humans. J Gerontol Med Sci. 2003; 58A: 176–180.Google Scholar
  67. 67.
    Garcia-Segura LM, Azcoitia I, DonCarlos LL. Neuroprotection by estradiol. Prog Neurobiol. 2001; 63: 29–60.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. 68.
    Berchtold NC, Kesslack JP, Pike CJ, Adlard PA, Cotman CW. Estrogen and exercise interact to regulate brain-derived neurotrophic factor mRNA and protein expression in the hippocampus. Eur J Neurosci. 2001; 14: 1992–2002.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. 69.
    Cotman CW, Berchtold NC. Exercise: A biobehavioral intervention to enhance brain health and plasticity. Trends Neurosci. 2002; 25: 295–301.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. 70.
    Erickson KI, Colcombe SJ, Elavsky S, et al. Interactive effects of fitness and hormone treatment on brain health in postmenopausal women. Neurobiol Aging. 2007; 28: 179–185.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. 71.
    Etnier JL, Caselli RJ, Reiman EM, et al. Cognitive performance in older women relative to ApoE-ε4 genotype and aerobic fitness. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007; 39: 199–207.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Society of Behavioral Medicine 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ann L. Smiley-Oyen
    • 1
  • Kristin A. Lowry
    • 1
  • Sara J. Francois
    • 2
  • Marian L. Kohut
    • 1
  • Panteleimon Ekkekakis
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of KinesiologyIowa State UniversityAmesUSA
  2. 2.Department of Physical TherapyMary Greeley Medical CenterAmesUSA

Personalised recommendations