CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Aging couch potatoes, start walking. A new study has found that previously sedentary people over age 60 who walked rapidly for 45 minutes three days a week can significantly improve mental-processing abilities that otherwise decline with age.
The findings centered not on the benefits of physical conditioning but on the frontal regions of the brain, where the additional oxygen taken in during walking triggered faster reaction times and heightened the ability to ignore distractions when completing a variety of mental tasks on a computer.
"The nice result of our study is that a person who has not been physically active during his or her younger years still can benefit by walking," said Arthur F. Kramer, a University of Illinois psychologist and researcher at the U. of I. Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.
The study -- funded by the National Institute on Aging -- examined the cognitive impact of walking (an aerobic workout) or doing toning exercises (anaerobic activity) on 124 adults ranging in age from 60 to 75. Some of the findings appear in the July 29 issue of the journal Nature.
Participants in both exercise groups showed improvement doing a repetitive task (pushing a button) when given a visual cue. However, the walkers were better able to process and ignore irrelevant cues and successfully complete tasks than were those who had done only toning exercises.
Processing relevant information and discarding distractions are essential to executive control, a term that covers such things as planning, inhibition and temporarily maintaining information in memory. When people drive a car, Kramer said, they must switch rapidly among complex skills -- watching other vehicles, looking for pedestrians, reading signs and ignoring unnecessary information.
"Executive control processes are largely controlled by the frontal and
prefrontal regions of the brain, areas which show negative metabolic and
Contact: Jim Barlow, Life Sciences Editor
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign