Researchers at the University of California at San Diego School of Medicine found a link between physical activity and cognitive performance in a new study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.
This observational study aimed to examine the association between daily fluctuations in physical activity and cognitive performance using mobile health technologies in free-living environments among 90 middle-aged and older subjects. The findings were published on Jan. 31, 2022, in the journal JMIR mHealth and uHealth.
“The future of lifestyle interventions needs to be remote-based,” said Raeanne Moore, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine and principal investigator of the study. “The pandemic has made this especially clear.”
The study’s subjects wore accelerometers while physically active and completed mobile cognitive testing from home.
Researchers found more efficient performance on executive function tasks among the 50 to 74-year-old participants on days that had an increase in physical activity. Conversely, a decline in physical performance was associated with a decline in cognitive performance.
“It was a very linear relationship,” Moore said.
Adjustments to comorbidities, such as HIV status, age, sex, education, and race/ethnicity, were made, but researchers saw that the correlation remained.
According to Moore, functionally independent adults likely perform more cognitively stimulating and social activities, which are known to have positive impacts on brain health, physical activity may have less of an impact on cognition. Those with Alzheimer's disease and related dementia saw a significant positive correlation.
Moore and first author Zvinka Zlatar, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at UC San Diego School of Medicine said their work has implications for the development of novel digital health interventions to preserve brain health in aging.
“We don’t know yet if there’s a cumulative, long-term effect to these small daily fluctuations in cognition,” Zlatar said. “That’s something we plan to study next – to see if performing the physical activity at different intensities over time, in unsupervised settings, can produce long-term improvements in brain health and sustained behavior change.”