Physical activity linked to greater mental flexibility in older adults

  • A correlation has been found between physical activity in healthy older adults and more variable resting-state brain activity.
  • More variable resting-state activity in older adults has previously been linked to better cognition.
  • No such correlation was found between cardiorespiratory fitness and resting-state brain activity.
  • The finding supports previous evidence linking higher levels of physical activity in old age with better cognition and brain health.

A study involving 100 healthy older adults (aged 60-80) has found that those with higher levels of physical activity showed more variable spontaneous brain activity in certain brain regions (including the precuneus, hippocampus, medial and lateral prefrontal, and temporal cortices). Moreover, this relationship was positively associated with better white-matter structure.

Higher rates of activity when the brain is “at rest” have previously been shown to be associated with better cognitive performance in older adults, especially in IQ and memory.

The brain regions showing this relationship all play an important role in major resting-state networks, including the default mode network, the motor network, and networks associated with executive control and salience detection. They are all highly connected.

Participants' physical activity over a week was measured using accelerometers. Cardiorespiratory fitness was also assessed. Participants were generally not very active and not very fit.

The findings add to evidence linking higher fitness and physical activity with greater brain integrity and higher cognitive performance. They are also consistent with previous studies showing an increase in such brain signal fluctuations among older adults participating in physical exercise programs.

Interestingly, level of brain activity fluctuations was only correlated with physical activity, not with cardiorespiratory fitness. This indicates that CRF and physical exercise cannot be considered as functional equivalents — there must be some aspects of physical activity not captured by a measure of cardiorespiratory fitness.

It's also worth noting that there wasn't a significant correlation between sedentary time and resting-state brain activity fluctuations, although this may be because the participants all showed not-very-dissimilar levels of sedentary time.


Burzynska AZ, Wong CN, Voss MW, Cooke GE, Gothe NP, Fanning J, et al. (2015) Physical Activity Is Linked to Greater Moment-To-Moment Variability in Spontaneous Brain Activity in Older Adults. PLoS ONE 10(8): e0134819.