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Distinct effects of acute exercise and breaks in sitting on working memory and executive function in older adults: a three-arm, randomised cross-over trial to evaluate the effects of exercise with and without breaks in sitting on cognition

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  • Michael J Wheeler
  • Daniel J Green
  • Kathryn A Ellis
  • Ester Cerin
  • Ilkka Heinonen
  • Louise H Naylor
  • Robyn Larsen
  • Patrik Wennberg
  • Carl-Johan Boraxbekk
  • Jaye Lewis
  • Nina Eikelis
  • Nicola T Lautenschlager
  • Bronwyn A Kingwell
  • Gavin Lambert
  • Neville Owen
  • David W Dunstan
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BACKGROUND: Sedentary behaviour is associated with impaired cognition, whereas exercise can acutely improve cognition.

OBJECTIVE: We compared the effects of a morning bout of moderate-intensity exercise, with and without subsequent light-intensity walking breaks from sitting, on cognition in older adults.

METHODS: Sedentary overweight/obese older adults with normal cognitive function (n=67, 67±7 years, 31.2±4.1 kg/m2) completed three conditions (6-day washout): SIT (sitting): uninterrupted sitting (8 hours, control); EX+SIT (exercise + sitting): sitting (1 hour), moderate-intensity walking (30 min), uninterrupted sitting (6.5 hours); and EX+BR (exercise + breaks): sitting (1 hour), moderate-intensity walking (30 min), sitting interrupted every 30 min with 3 min of light-intensity walking (6.5 hours). Cognitive testing (Cogstate) was completed at four time points assessing psychomotor function, attention, executive function, visual learning and working memory. Serum brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor (BDNF) was assessed at six time points. The 8-hour net area under the curve (AUC) was calculated for each outcome.

RESULTS: Working memory net AUC z-score·hour (95% CI) was improved in EX+BR with a z-score of +28 (-26 to +81), relative to SIT, -25 (-79 to +29, p=0.04 vs EX+BR). Executive function net AUC was improved in EX+SIT, -8 (- 71 to +55), relative to SIT, -80 (-142 to -17, p=0.03 vs EX+SIT). Serum BDNF net AUC ng/mL·hour (95% CI) was increased in both EX+SIT, +171 (-449 to +791, p=0.03 vs SIT), and EX+BR, +139 (-481 to +759, p=0.045 vs SIT), relative to SIT, -227 (-851 to +396).

CONCLUSION: A morning bout of moderate-intensity exercise improves serum BDNF and working memory or executive function in older adults, depending on whether or not subsequent sitting is also interrupted with intermittent light-intensity walking.


Original languageEnglish
JournalBritish Journal of Sports Medicine
Issue number13
Pages (from-to)776-781
Number of pages6
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2020

    Research areas

  • ageing, brain, exercise, sedentary

ID: 57073838