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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

Abstract

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.

Trial registration number ACTRN12614000737639.

  • sedentary
  • exercise
  • brain
  • ageing
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