A Randomized Controlled Trial of High-Intensity Exercise and Executive Functioning in Cognitively Normal Older Adults

Natalie J. Frost, Michael Weinborn, Gilles E. Gignac, Stephanie R. Rainey-Smith, Shaun Markovic, Nicole Gordon, Hamid R. Sohrabi, Simon M. Laws, Ralph N. Martins, Jeremiah J. Peiffer, Belinda M. Brown

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


Background: There is a paucity of interventional research that systematically assesses the role of exercise intensity and cardiorespiratory fitness, and their relationship with executive function in older adults. To address this limitation, we have examined the effect of a systematically manipulated exercise intervention on executive function. Methods: Ninety-nine cognitively normal participants (age = 69.10 ± 5.2 years; n = 54 female) were randomized into either a high-intensity cycle-based exercise, moderate-intensity cycle-based exercise, or no-intervention control group. All participants underwent neuropsychological testing and fitness assessment at baseline (preintervention), 6-month follow-up (postintervention), and 12-month postintervention. Executive function was measured comprehensively, including measures of each subdomain: Shifting, Updating/ Working Memory, Inhibition, Verbal Generativity, and Nonverbal Reasoning. Cardiorespiratory fitness was measured by analysis of peak aerobic capacity; VO2peak. Results: First, the exercise intervention was found to increase cardiorespiratory fitness (VO2peak) in the intervention groups, in comparison to the control group (F =10.40, p≤0.01). However, the authors failed to find mean differences in executive function scores between the high-intensity, moderate intensity, or inactive control group. On the basis of change scores, cardiorespiratory fitness was found to associate positively with the executive function (EF) subdomains of Updating/Working Memory (β = 0.37, p = 0.01, r = 0.34) and Verbal Generativity (β = 0.30, p = 0.03, r = 0.28) for intervention, but not control participants. Conclusion: At the aggregate level, the authors failed to find evidence that 6-months of high-intensity aerobic exercise improves EF in older adults. However, it remains possible that individual differences in experimentally induced changes in cardiorespiratory fitness may be associated with changes in Updating/ Working Memory and Verbal Generativity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)129-140
Number of pages12
JournalAmerican Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2021


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