As we age, the white matter in the brain begins to degenerate leading to a decline in cognitive function, such as processing speed and memory decline. We all know that physical activity and exercise is beneficial, but can exercise help our white matter and brain function too?

A new study published in March this year looked at three types of exercise for older adults – walking, stretching, and line/country dancing. They wanted to see if one helped prevent cognitive decline more than the others.

What is the study about?

The participants were “older adults.” Their definition of “older” was people aged 60-79. The study ran for six months on 174 healthy but low-active participants. They were randomized to one of four groups:

  1. Active Control group – stretching and toning
  2. Walking group
  3. Walking plus supplement group
  4. Dancing group

At the beginning and end of the study, brain size, cognitive, and cardiorespiratory assessments were conducted. All participants attended supervised 1-hour long sessions of their assigned intervention three times a week for six months. 

Key aspects of the interventions

Stretching and toning control group. This group focused on improving strength, stretching, and stability for the whole body in a program specifically designed for people over 60. 

Walking group. This intervention was brisk walking with assessment of heart rate and perceieved exertion rating.

Walking and nutrition group. This group had the same protocol as the walking group but added a daily supplement containing beta-alanine. Beta-analine is thought to promote increased lean muscle mass.

Dancing group. This intervention was designed to improve physical fitness in a socially engaging environment. Taught by a dance instructor, the sessions included progressively more challenging choreography in line and country dancing. The dances required participants to move between partners during each dance.

What were the study results?

Brain white matter changes

In groups 1, 2, and 3 (the control and walking groups), signs of white matter degeneration were seen over the 6 month period. This degeneration was especially noticeable in the oldest participants and those who had been the most sedentary before joining the study.

In group 4, however, the dancing group, improvement in the health of the white matter was seen at 6 months. They had denser white matter in the fornix area of the brain. The fornix is the part of the brain involved with processing speed and memory. This was the same area where degeneration was observed in the other groups.  

Cognitive function changes

Just as interesting as the white matter changes, the study showed that no groups showed reductions in cognitive function – no matter if their white matter decreased or increased. Almost everyone performed better on the cognitive tests at the end of the study than they had at the beginning of the study. This suggests that possibly the neuroimaging outcomes/changes precede changes in cognition. A longer duration study would help clarify this. 

What does this mean? What is the best exercise for brains?

The researchers concluded that the cognitive demands of the dancing – through learning choreography and increasing the complexity – affected the biochemistry of the brain tissue in the fornix. Dancing involved many different things including aerobic exercise, cognition, visual spatial skills, and social and emotional engagement.  Maybe it is the combination of all of these that made the difference. 

Encouragingly, it also showed that engaging in activities that involve moving AND socialization (i.e., from all groups) might help mental ability in aging brains and slow cognitive decline. 

Take home message 

While there are lots of other factors that could be involved, such a polymorphisms and diet, and longer trials are needed, the trial offers these take home messages:

Try not to be sedentary.

Keep moving.  

Be socially engaged with others.

Try a dance class.

Get out there and have some fun!

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