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Research underway to look at effects of exercise on older adult brain function

Posted September 18, 2015

One of the largest research studies of it kind in the state is now underway at the University of Colorado Boulder to look at the effects of physical activity on the quality of life in older adults, including social, emotional, financial and cognitive function.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the five year, $1.7 million grant to Professor Angela Bryan of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience began in 2014 and runs until 2019. Called “Project FORCE: Enhancing Function in Later Life,” the CU-Boulder study involves the effects of aerobic activity on executive function, which includes the management of cognitive processes such as memory, reasoning, task flexibility and problem solving.

The researchers are in the process of collecting data from 265 sedentary adults age 60 or over as well as 40 sedentary young adults ages 25 to 35. Bryan’s team is recruiting individuals in the Boulder-Denver area for the study and participants are financially compensated.

CU-Boulder doctoral student Casey Gardiner, a member of Bryan’s research team, said study participants complete research assessments before and after a 16-week supervised exercise program.

“This allows us to determine how exercise can change the brain, whether different exercise regimens affect the brain differently, and whether brain function may explain the positive effects of exercise in numerous aspects of function of older adults,” said Gardiner of the psychology and neuroscience department.

Bryan and CU-Boulder psychology and neuroscience Professor Kent Hutchison, who both are affiliated with CU-Boulder’s Institute of Cognitive Science (ICS), co-direct the Center for Health and Addiction: Neuroscience, Genes, and Environment (CU Change). The goals of the research in the CU Change lab are to explore the neurocognitive, psychological and genetic factors that are linked to health and risk behavior.

All participants in Project FORCE undergo a battery of neurocognitive assessments as well as physiological testing for cardiovascular fitness and functional brain network connectivity using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Participants are randomly assigned to either low or moderate intensity, four-month aerobic exercise programs.

Gardiner emphasized that exercise has been shown to have a multitude of benefits, including increasing lifespan, controlling weight, improving mental health, strengthening bones and muscles, and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, some cancers, and Type 2 diabetes.

Unfortunately, most older adults are not meeting recommendations by the American College of Sports Medicine calling for at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each week, she said. Such activities can include brisk walking, jogging, bicycling and dancing.

Bryan and Gardiner also are encouraging people over 50 in the Boulder-Denver area to participate in a national exercise and physical activity campaign during September called Go4Life month. Go4Life is sponsored by NIH’s National Institute on Aging in collaboration with the White House. More information of Go4Life is available at

Source: University of Colorado Boulder


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