The most comprehensive systematic review of evidence from randomized controlled trials to date shows that physical exercise is effective in improving cognitive function in adults aged > 50 years, regardless of their cognitive status.1

Prior reviews on this topic provided incomplete summaries because they were limited to one mode of exercise or a narrow range of publication years. Thus, researchers from the University of Canberra Research Institute for Sport and Exercise (Canberra, Australia) conducted a systematic review that included aerobic exercise, resistance training, multicomponent exercise, tai chi, and yoga, without imposing limits on publication date.

Thirty-nine randomized controlled trials were identified and included in the meta-analysis. The researchers found that all modes of exercise were beneficial in improving cognitive function except yoga (there were only 2 yoga studies in this meta-analysis). When taking into account other exercise training variables, they found that exercise with a duration of 45-60 minutes and at moderate to vigorous intensity was significantly beneficial. Another important finding was that non-traditional modes of exercise such as tai chi also improved cognition in this age group.

The study results were published in the journal British Journal of Sports Medicine (April 2017).

Why is this clinically important?

  • For individuals aged 50 and above, almost all forms of exercise would be beneficial for their cognitive function.
  • Adopting exercise regimen at any age is worthwhile in improving cognitive function and delaying cognitive decline.
  • For less functional populations, tai chi may be an excellent mode of exercise that was highly beneficial.
  • Clinician should ensure that their exercise recommendations to their aging patients are personalized and provide a sufficient training stimulus in terms of duration and intensity.

Click here to read the British Journal of Sports Medicine abstract


  1. Northey JM, Cherbuin N, Pumpa KL, Smee DJ, Rattray B. Exercise interventions for cognitive function in adults older than 50: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med 2017.


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