Summary: Frequent moderate to vigorous physical activity is associated with better cognitive and brain power in middle age. This level of strength is associated with better memory and mental processes. Reducing intensity by 6-7 minutes per day to low-intensity or sedentary behavior is associated with poorer cognitive performance.

Source: BMJ

Daily time spent doing moderate to vigorous physical activity is linked to brain power in midlife, according to a study published online. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

This level of intensity appears to be best for working memory and mental processes such as planning and organization, and substituting 6-7 minutes of light intensity activity or competitive behavior per day is associated with poorer cognitive performance, the findings suggest.

Previously published studies linked daily moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, or MVPA for short, to health, but few included time spent sleeping, the largest component of any 24-hour period, the researchers said.

They therefore took a compositional approach to determine whether MVPA, relative to other daily activity behaviors, might be better for cognitive performance in midlife.

They took part in the 1970 British Cohort Study, which included people born in 1970 across England, Scotland and Wales whose health was followed during childhood and adulthood.

In the year In 2016-18, 8581 participants aged 46-47 were asked to fill out detailed health, background and lifestyle questionnaires and wear an activity tracker for up to 7 days and at least 10. consecutive hours during the day.

They took different cognitive tests for verbal memory (immediate and delayed verbal recall tasks) and executive function (verbal fluency and processing speed/accuracy).

Scores from each test were summed for a total global score for memory and executive functions.

Among those who agreed to wear an activity tracker, 2959 participants were excluded due to device error, insufficient wear time, or incomplete completion of questionnaires.

The final analysis included 4481 participants, more than half of whom (52%) were women. Two-thirds (66%) were married and 43% were educated until the age of 18.

Analysis of activity tracking data revealed that participants averaged 51 minutes of MVPA, 5 hours and 42 minutes of light-intensity physical activity, 9 hours and 16 minutes of sedentary behavior, and 8 hours and 11 minutes of sleep over a 24-hour period.

Time in MVPA was positively associated with cognitive performance after adjusting for academic achievement and workplace physical activity relative to other types of behavior. But further adjustment for health issues weakened these associations.

Sedentary behavior, in terms of sleep and light exercise, was positively associated with cognitive performance, the researchers noted, indicating greater engagement in cognitively stimulating activities such as reading or working than the perceived benefits of watching television.

The associations were stronger for executive function than for memory.

Compared to the mean of the sample, participants in the top half of cognitive performance scores spent more time in MVPA and sedentary behaviors and less time sleeping, while the lowest 25% of scorers engaged in very light weight physical activity.

To better understand the associations of movement with cognition, the researchers switched from one organ to another on a minute-by-minute basis to estimate how this might affect global cognitive performance outcomes.

This MVPA has shown an increase in scores after theoretically displacing other activities.

Individuals showed a 1.31% improvement in cognitive level compared to the sample mean improvement with less than 9 minutes of sedentary activity with more vigorous activity – a positive trend with a significant decrease in sedentary activity.

Similarly, there was a 1.27% improvement by substituting gentle activity or 1.2% by substituting 7 minutes of sleep. Such improvements have shown further improvement over time.

Competitive behavior was favorable for cognitive outcomes, but only after replacing 37 minutes of light intensity physical activity or 56 minutes of sleep.

This shows a person running.
Time in MVPA was positively associated with cognitive performance after adjusting for academic achievement and workplace physical activity relative to other types of behavior. The image is in the public domain.

In the study sample, participants experienced a 1-2% decline in their knowledge level after switching to more vigorous activity, which was theoretically only 8 minutes. Ratings continue to decline with further declines in MVPA.

Similarly, replacing vigorous activity with 6 minutes of light-intensity exercise or 7 minutes of sleep was associated with a 1-2% decline in cognitive level, which was exacerbated by a greater loss for MVPA.

The activity trackers only capture time spent in bed rather than sleep duration or quality, which may help explain the relationship with sleep, the researchers said.

“MVPA is typically the smallest part of the day, realistically speaking, and the hardest strength to achieve. Perhaps this is partly why the loss of any MVPA time, even in this relatively active group, appears to be harmful,” they explain.

This is an observational study, and as such cannot prove causation. And the researchers highlight several caveats: Activity tracking measures cannot provide context for every element of activity. And despite the large sample size, people of color were underrepresented, limiting the generalizability of the findings.

However, they conclude, “This robust mechanism confirms the critical role of MVPA in supporting awareness, and efforts should be made to strengthen this component of daily practice.”

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So exercise, aging and cognitive research news

Author: Press office
Source: BMJ
Contact: Press Office – BMJ
Image: The image is in the public domain.

Preliminary study: Open Access.
Exploring associations of daily activity characteristics and midlife cognition: A composite analysis of the 1970 British cohort study.” by John J. Mitchell et al Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health


Exploring associations of daily activity characteristics and midlife cognition: A composite analysis of the 1970 British cohort study.


Physical activity (eg, sedentary behavior (SB), moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA), light physical activity (LIPA), and sleep) has been linked to cognition, but the relative importance of each component is unclear, and has not yet been investigated. Composition methods.


To (i) assess the associations between different components of daily activity and the participant’s overall cognition, memory, and executive functions, and (ii) understand the relative importance of each individual component to cognition.


The British Cohort Study 1970 (BCS70) is a prospective birth cohort study of UK-born adults. At age 46, participants agreed to wear an accelerometer and complete tests of verbal memory and executive function. Multivariate linear regression was used to examine cross-sectional associations between 24-hour activity characteristics and standardized cognitive scores. Isotemporal substitution was performed to model the effect of switching time between components of daily activity on cognition.


The sample included 4481 participants (52% female). Time in MVPA was associated with SB, LIPA, and sleep-related cognition after adjustment for education and professional physical activity, but associations with additional adjustment for health status. SB is associated with cognition relative to all other activities. Modeling time between factors showed an increase in cognitive senescence after replacing MVPA with a theoretical 9 min of SB (OR=1.31; 95% CI 0.09 to 2.50), 7 min of LIPA (1.27; 0.07 to 2.46), or 7 minutes of sleep (1.20). from 0.01 to 2.39).


Relative to time spent on other behaviors, greater MVPA and SB were associated with higher cognitive scores. Given its relatively small size, MVPA’s time loss appears to be very tedious. Efforts should be made to maintain or strengthen MVPA in place of other behaviors.

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