Image: Charles Emery
Terry Gilliam  /  AP
Researcher Charles Emery is shown here in his office in Columbus, Ohio, on April 20. Emery's study found that older people who exercise regularly are more likely to maintain mental sharpness.
updated 4/6/2005 6:37:11 PM ET 2005-04-06T22:37:11

Older people who exercise regularly are more likely to maintain the mental sharpness needed to do everyday tasks like follow a recipe and keep track of the pills they take, Ohio State University researchers say.

A study that examined the exercise habits of 28 people with chronic lung problems for more than a year found that routine workouts helped stave off not only the physical effects of aging, but decline in memory and other brain function.

Participants who exercised for a while then stopped lost the benefits they gained, the study found.

Health care experts said the findings bolster the need to encourage the elderly to follow exercise routines and to create more rehabilitation programs for people recovering from illness or injury.

“It’s one of the conundrums, puzzles and challenges,” said Terrie Wetle, president of the Gerontological Society of America and associate dean of medicine for public health at Brown University. “We can get older people to participate in an exercise program. The biggest challenge is to get them to maintain those behaviors over time.”

The effects of aging were more pronounced in this study’s participants, whose average age was 65, because they suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a blanket term including emphysema or bronchitis. The study’s lead author, Charles Emery, an Ohio State psychology professor, said similar results from exercise could be expected in healthier older adults.

“The kinds of changes we see in people with chronic lung disease are really an exacerbation of changes that occur normally with age,” he said. “Similarly, the kinds of cognitive changes that occur normally with age are exaggerated.”

Surprising scores
For 10 weeks, participants gathered at a wellness center at Duke University in Durham, N.C., for an aerobic routine lasting about an hour that included walking, stationary bike riding, pool aerobics and weight-training. For the first five weeks, they exercised daily then cut back to three times a week.

At the beginning and end of the 10-week period, the participants took a battery of emotional, physical and cognitive tests. Some of the tests asked about their moods, required them to match numbers with symbols and checked their ability to follow directions.

As researchers predicted, the scores improved after the exercise. But it was follow-up tests a year later that were surprising.

Researchers told those in the study how to maintain their routines at home. A year later, the same battery of tests was given.

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Researchers had expected the people who kept exercising to show continued improvement in the tests. Instead, testing indicated exercise was needed just to maintain the same levels of performance.

“We found that the people who continued to exercise remained stable, and it was the people who stopped exercising or exercised irregularly who showed a decline,” Emery said.

Emery concluded that exercising can help older people — both sick and healthy — maintain the mental functioning ability needed to interpret information without being distracted. This type of thought is involved in complicated tasks, such as following directions to a house that a person has never visited.

Health care experts said the findings were consistent with previous results linking cognitive performance with exercise programs.

But such studies are important to make sure older people and their doctors get the message that exercise is necessary, said Kerry Stewart, director of clinical exercise physiology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

“One of the biggest problems is physicians need to be made aware that these (rehabilitation) programs are available,” he said.

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