Exercise & Cognition

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Cognitive Function: Effects of Physical & Mental Exercise

17 Recent Studies

Kenneth S. Pope, Ph.D., ABPP

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The following resource may help therapists, counselors, patients, and their families who wish to keep abreast of the rapidly evolving research on the effects of physical and mental exercise on preventing or slowing cognitive decline, improving cognitive functioning, and other aspects of cognition.


I've pulled together some recent (i.e., published in 2019-2020) research on exercise and cognition. 


I'll continue to update this resource from time to time, but currently there are 17 citations with excerpts below.


Here are 17 studies published in 2019-2020:


Amjad, I., et al. (2019). "Therapeutic effects of aerobic exercise on EEG parameters and higher cognitive functions in mild cognitive impairment patients." International Journal of Neuroscience 129(6): 551-562.

EXCERPT: “Significant improvements were observed in the MMSE (p = .032), MoCA (p = .036), TMT-A (p = .005), and TMT-B (p = .007) in aerobic exercise group as compared to no-aerobic group…. Aerobic exercise showed improvement in cognition after short and long-term treatment in MCI subjects and can be used as potential therapeutic candidate.”


Bae, S. and H. Masaki (2019). "Effects of acute aerobic exercise on cognitive flexibility required during task-switching paradigm." Front Hum Neurosci 13.

EXCERPT: “This result is consistent with the findings of previous studies, indicating that cognitive processing speed is increased only during task conditions requiring greater amounts of executive control. Our study clearly indicates that acute aerobic exercise may facilitate cognitive flexibility as well as other executive functions (i.e., inhibitory control and working memory).”

Bielak, A. A. M. and C. R. Brydges (2019). "Can intraindividual variability in cognitive speed be reduced by physical exercise? Results from the LIFE Study." The Journals of Gerontology: Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 74(8): 1335-1344.

EXCERPT: “Findings are mixed regarding the potential to improve older adults’ cognitive ability via training and activity interventions. One novel sensitive outcome may be intraindividual variability (IIV) in cognitive speed, or moment-to-moment changes in a person’s performance. The present article evaluated if participants who participated in a moderate physical activity intervention showed a reduction in IIV, compared with a successful aging education control group…. Results indicated that participants in the physical activity group did not show a reduction in their IIV….The lack of a significant reduction in IIV may be due to the mild nature of the physical activity program and the cognitively healthy sample. It is also possible that other types of lifestyle activity interventions (e.g., social and cognitive engagement) can elicit reductions in IIV for older adults.”


Engeroff, T., et al. (2019). "Intensity and workload related dose-response effects of acute resistance exercise on domain-specific cognitive function and affective response—A four-armed randomized controlled crossover trial." Psychology of Sport and Exercise 43: 55-63.

EXCERPT: “Workload-matched REs induced significant changes in attention and interference control. The workload reduced 75% 1RM RE induced changes in interference control, but no changes in attention performance. 75% 1RM exercise with full and 50% workload induced significant changes in arousal. Only 75% 1RM exercise with full workload significantly increased participants ability to concentrate…. Higher cognitive functions such as interference control seem to particularly benefit from moderate intensity RE whereas lower cognitive functions may be stimulated by higher intensity and higher workload RE. Self-perceived subjective factors did not mediate these dose response relationships.”


Falck, R. S., et al. (2019). "Impact of exercise training on physical and cognitive function among older adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis." Neurobiology of Aging 79: 119-130.

EXCERPT: “These data suggest exercise training has a significant benefit.... Our results indicate exercise improves both physical and cognitive function, reiterating the notion that exercise is a panacea for aging well.”


Krell-Roesch, J., et al. (2019). "Association of non-exercise physical activity in mid- and late-life with cognitive trajectories and the impact of APOE ε4 genotype status: The Mayo Clinic Study of Aging." European Journal of Ageing 16(4): 491-502.

EXCERPT: “Linear mixed-effect models revealed that engaging in midlife PA of moderate or heavy intensity was associated with significantly less-pronounced decline of z-scores in all cognitive domains. Similarly, participants that engaged in late-life moderate or heavy PA had less decline in visuospatial, attention and global z-scores than non-active peers. These associations varied depending on APOE ε4 carrier status, i.e., APOE ε4 non-carriers but not APOE ε4 carriers that engaged in late-life PA had less decline in cognitive z-scores. In contrast, engaging in midlife PA, irrespective of intensity, was significantly associated with less decline in memory function only among APOE ε4 carriers.”


Lefferts, W. K., et al. (2019). "Effects of acute aerobic exercise on cognition and constructs of decision-making in adults with and without hypertension." Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience 11.

EXCERPT: “Exercise elicited similar changes in cognitive function in both HTN and non-HTN groups (p > 0.05). Accuracy was unaltered for Flanker and 2-back tasks, while hits and false alarms increased for memory recognition post-exercise (p p < 0.05). Our data indicate acute exercise resulted in similar, beneficial cognitive responses in both middle-age HTN and non-HTN adults, marked by unaltered task accuracy, and accelerated RT post-exercise. Additionally, drift-diffusion modeling revealed that beneficial acceleration of cognitive processing post-exercise (RT) is driven by changes in non-decision components (encoding/motor response) rather than the decision-making process itself.”


Lin, S., et al. (2019). "The beneficial effect of physical exercise on cognitive function in a non-dementia aging Chinese population." Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience 11.

EXCERPT: “. A significant difference in cognitive function was observed at the baseline and during the 1-year follow-up between the self-selected exercise and self-selected non-exercise groups, however, no significant differences in blood lipids and brain anatomy was evident. Physical exercise has a beneficial effect on cognition, particularly visuospatial function, and decreases the risk of dementia in a Chinese aging cohort.”


Northey, J. M., et al. (2019). "Cognition in breast cancer survivors: A pilot study of interval and continuous exercise." Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 22(5): 580-585.

EXCERPT: “Although there were no significant differences in the cognitive and cerebrovascular outcomes, HIIT produced moderate to large positive effects in comparison to MOD and CON for outcomes including episodic memory, working memory, executive function, cerebral blood flow and cerebrovascular reactivity. HIIT significantly increased VO2peak by 19.3% (d = 1.28) and MOD had a non-significant 5.6% (d = 0.72) increase, compared to CON which had a 2.6% decrease…. This study provides preliminary evidence that HIIT may be an effective exercise intervention to improve cognitive performance, cerebrovascular function and aerobic fitness in breast cancer survivors.”


Pereira, T., et al. (2019). "Exercise, ageing and cognitive function—Effects of a personalized physical exercise program in the cognitive function of older adults." Physiology & Behavior 202: 8-13.

EXCERPT: “The 33 included elderly participants were divided into two groups (intervention group –IG—and control group—CG) according to their willingness to participate in the physical training program. Cognitive function was evaluated with the Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery (CANTAB) platform at baseline ant three-months after the intervention period in all the participants. The groups had similar clinical and demographic characteristics at baseline. After the intervention program, significant improvements in cognitive function were observed in the IG, but not in the CG. Particularly, a significant improvement in motor control, spatial working memory and visuospatial associate learning were depicted in the IG, which revealed an overall better cognitive performance as compared with the CG after the follow-up period. The results clearly identify physical exercise as an effective non-pharmacological tool to positively modulate age-related decline in cognitive function in older adults…”


Shimada, T., et al. (2019). "Aerobic exercise and cognitive functioning in schizophrenia: A pilot randomized controlled trial." Psychiatry Research: published online in advance of print publication

EXCERPT: “Over 12 weeks, patients were given a dose of 2 exercise sessions per week, including 1 individual session and 1 group session. TAU + AE patients showed significant improvements in cognition, intrinsic motivation, psychiatric symptoms, and interpersonal relations. These encouraging findings support the promise of integrated individual and group AEs to improve cognition and other outcomes in schizophrenia.”


Song, D. and D. S. F. Yu (2019). "Effects of a moderate-intensity aerobic exercise programme on the cognitive function and quality of life of community-dwelling elderly people with mild cognitive impairment: A randomised controlled trial." International Journal of Nursing Studies 93: 97-105.

EXCERPT: “Participants in the intervention group had a significantly greater improvement in terms of cognitive function (β = 1.895; 95% confidential interval [CI] = 1.421, 2.368; p p < 0.001) compared with the control group over the pre-test and post-test periods. The exercise–cognition relationship was significantly mediated by reduced depressive symptoms (indirect effect: β= −0.705; 95% CI: −1.028, −0.382) and improved sleep quality (indirect effect: β=−0.205; 95% CI: −0.122, 0.831)…. This study revealed the benefits and outlined the underlying mediating mechanism of an aerobic exercise programme to the cognitive function and health-related quality of life of Chinese elderly people with mild cognitive impairment. The findings provided insights into the development of public health initiatives to promote brain health amongst the elderly with mild cognitive impairment.”


Stern, Y., et al. (2019). "Effect of aerobic exercise on cognition in younger adults: A randomized clinical trial." Neurology 92(9): e905-e916.

EXCERPT: “This randomized clinical trial demonstrates the efficacy of aerobic exercise for cognition in adults age 20–67. The effect of aerobic exercise on executive function was more pronounced as age increased, suggesting that it may mitigate age-related declines. Increased cortical thickness suggests that aerobic exercise contributes to brain health in individuals as young as age 20.”

Takahashi, S., et al. (2019). "Effect of aerobic exercise combined with cognitive remediation on cortical thickness and prediction of social adaptation in patients with schizophrenia." Schizophrenia Research: published online in advance of print publication

EXCERPT: “The 12-week exercise intervention was combined with computer-assisted cognitive remediation training from week 6 to week 12. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans were acquired at baseline and weeks 6, 12, and 24. The thickness of the entorhinal, parahippocampal, and lateral and medial prefrontal cortices was assessed with FreeSurfer 6.0. The schizophrenia aerobic exercise group showed a significant increase of cortical thickness in the right entorhinal cortex at week 6, and we found a significant correlation between the cortical thickness of the right lateral prefrontal cortex at baseline and improvement of social adaptation at week 12. In the schizophrenia table soccer and healthy control groups, we found no significant longitudinal change in cortical thickness through the intervention and follow-up period and no correlation of cortical thickness at baseline with clinical measures. Our results suggest that aerobic exercise in schizophrenia modulates the thickness of the entorhinal cortex, a structure adjacent to the hippocampus. Greater cortical thickness of the right lateral prefrontal cortex appears to predict better clinical response to an aerobic exercise intervention in patients with schizophrenia.”


Wang, C.-H., et al. (2019). "Aerobic exercise modulates transfer and brain signal complexity following cognitive training." Biological Psychology 144: 85-98.

EXCERPT: “Although results revealed weak-to-moderate evidence for exercise-induced facilitation on cognitive training, the combination of cognitive training with exercise resulted in greater transfer gains on conditions involving greater attentional demanding, together with greater increases in cognitive modulation on MSE, compared with the reading condition. Overall, our findings suggest that the addition of antecedent physical exercise to brain training regimen could enable wider, more robust improvements.”


White, H. A. and L. E. Highfill (2019). "Cognitive exercise boosts exam performance in an introductory psychology course." Teaching of Psychology 46(2): 135-139.

EXCERPT: “Results showed significantly better exam performance on material based on lectures that followed cognitive exercise compared to lectures on nonexercise days. On an anonymous program feedback survey, students reported significantly greater levels of alertness following cognitive exercise versus before; the majority of students rated their attention to lecture and note-taking ability as above average after cognitive workouts. Although preliminary, findings suggest that cognitive exercise in the classroom may positively impact learning for college students.”

Zheng, G., et al. (2019). "The effects of exercise on the structure of cognitive related brain regions: A meta-analysis of functional neuroimaging data." International Journal of Neuroscience 129(4): 406-415.

EXCERPT: “Nine randomized controlled trials (RCTs) with 50 distinct foci were analyzed for structural changes, containing 412 healthy older subjects. ALE showed significant regional increases in regions including the left superior temporal gyrus, left medial temporal gyrus, left inferior frontal gyrus, right medial frontal gyrus, right and left superior frontal gyrus, left cingulate gyrus, right anterior cingulate and left lentiform nucleus in subjects with the exercise intervention compared to controls. However, considering the quantity and limitations of the included studies, the conclusion could not yet be drawn.”


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