Aerobic exercise was associated with improved executive function and increased cortical thickness in cognitively normal adults between ages 20 and 67 years, suggesting that aerobic exercise may contribute to brain health in adults as young as 20 years, according to a study published in Neurology. Improvements in executive function were more significant as age increased, while increases in cortical thickness were not age-dependent.

A team of researchers in New York conducted a randomized, parallel-group, observer-masked, community-based clinical trial ( Identifier, NCT01179958) to understand the impact of aerobic exercise on cognitive function in younger, healthy adults. A total of 132 cognitively normal adults with below median aerobic capacity were randomly assigned to either aerobic exercise or stretching/toning 4 times weekly for 6 months. Outcomes measured included aerobic capacity, cognitive function, everyday function, body mass index (BMI), and cortical thickness. Cognitive function efficacy measures included executive function, episodic memory, processing speed, language, and attention.

A significant increase in aerobic capacity and a decrease in BMI (β, 2.718 and -0.596, respectively) were seen in participants in the aerobic cohort but not in the stretching/toning cohort. In addition, moderated by age, members of the aerobic cohort demonstrated significant improvement in executive function (β, 0.018 SD/y); executive function measure was found to be increased by 0.228 SD at age 40 and by 0.596 SD at age 60.

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Cortical thickness also significantly increased in the aerobic exercise cohort but did not interact with age. Executive function improved less among participants in the aerobic cohort with at least 1 APOE ε4 allele (β, 0.5129).

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“This study extends the demonstrated benefits of aerobic exercise to individuals as young as 20,” the authors noted. “These findings have strong public health implications and allow the recommendation of a feasible, flexible intervention for cognitive and brain health for adults of all ages.”

Disclosure: Authors of the study reported receiving grants for clinical research and consulting fees. Please the original article for a full listing of disclosures.


Stern Y, MacKay-Brandt A, Lee S, et al. Effect of aerobic exercise on cognition in younger adults. Neurology. 2019;92:1-12