Exercises that engage the mind and body improve memory and other measures of cognitive function.
When it comes to taking care of your brain and your body as you age, a new study suggests you may want to consider adding a dose of ballroom dancing to your health regimen. A new meta-analysis published in December 2018 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that older adults who participate in mind-body exercises can actually show improvements in several important aspects of brain function, such as memory, verbal fluency, and learning.
These findings are not surprising considering that we already know that mental activities and physical activities are good for the brain, says Neda Gould, PhD, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, who was not involved in this research.
“It makes sense that when we combine the two, it would still be good, but it is helpful to have data that backs up this assumption,” says Dr. Gould.
Any Movement Is Good for the Brain, Though Some Activities Are Better
In order to quantify the benefits for mind-body exercise in older adults, researchers analyzed results from 32 randomized controlled trials with a total of 3,624 participants. Subjects ranged from 50 to 85 years old. Eighteen studies looked at cognitive performance in healthy older adults, and 14 focused those with mild cognitive impairment.
The researchers pooled and grouped the results of the individual studies and evaluated the overall efficacy of the activities on the two groups, as well as the amount of time needed to promote cognitive performance.
“A novel aspect of this study is the way it combined several therapies that incorporate both the mind and the body,” says Gould. The researchers pooled tai chi, different types of dance, and Pilates as activities that engage both mind and body simultaneously.
“We found out that mind-body exercises, especially tai chi and dance, are beneficial for improving global cognition, cognitive flexibility, working memory, verbal fluency, and learning in cognitively intact or impaired older adults,”says Chunzhi Tang, a researcher at the University of Chinese Medicine in Guangzhou. “Moderate intensity is recommended as the optimal dose for older adults.” Moderate intensity was defined as 60 to 120 minutes of mind-body exercise per week.
“One thing to note is the range of activities that were pooled,” says Gould. “For example, ballroom dancing, which was looked at in one study, requires much more physical exertion than tai chi, which involves very slow movements.”
Improved Cognitive Flexibility and Task Shifting Among the Benefits
In the pooled results, the mind-body exercise group was superior to the control group in global cognition, which encompasses different aspects of brain function, such as language, comprehension, and memory.
The mind-body exercises also improved cognitive flexibility, which is one of the brain’s executive functions, and defined as the capacity to think about multiple concepts at the same time. A subcategory of cognitive flexibility is task shifting, which is when a person can unconsciously move their attention from one task to another. Researchers noted that “Good executive function can help older adults make appropriate decisions, focus on important details, store information in working memory, and shift tasks.”
“In our opinion, the moderate dose (60 to 120 minutes per week) of mind-body exercise is associated with the improvement of global cognition and could be recommended for older adults with or without cognitive impairment for better health,” says Tang.
The major finding of this analysis is that one to two hours a week of mind-body exercise could be a recommended or supplemental therapy for individuals to preserve cognitive well-being, Gould echoes.
“Any form of movement is good, and now we have more to choose from based on this evidence,” says Gould. For people who may be looking to try new forms of exercise that incorporate mind and body, tai chi and dance are good options, she adds.
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