Exercise Part 2: Does Exercise Change the Brain in People with MCI?

Nov 4, 2019 | Pauline Lucas | @paulinehlucas | Comments (1)

Exercising Couple

There are many great health reasons to stay physically active throughout life. Because of these benefits, the limited risks, and the low to no cost options for getting moving, it has been said that if we could package exercise as a pill, everyone would take it. Besides all the scientific evidence for the physical benefits like weight management, improved heart function, increased muscle strength and flexibility, better sleep and improved digestion and elimination, there are also significant brain health benefits.

Last week, Dr. Shandera outlined strategies to start a new exercise program gradually. This week, I’d like to highlight an example of a recent study that outlines the brain health benefits of exercise for those living with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI).


This recent study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s’ disease examined the effect of a year-long program of aerobic exercise (AE) versus stretching and toning (SAT) in a group of 70 participants with MCI. The purpose of the study was to test the effect of a moderate-high intensity aerobic exercise program on memory, executive/cognitive function, brain volume, and amyloid plaque formation in MCI patients. Patients were men and women aged 55-80, who did not exercise on a regular basis.


The aerobic exercise group completed a year-long aerobic exercise program that gradually increased in frequency and intensity. They started with exercising three times per week for 25-30 minutes at moderate intensity (75-80% of maximum heart rate) and progressed to exercising 5 times per week for 30-40 minutes including two high intensity (85-90% of maximum heart rate) sessions. Participants in this group used a heart rate monitor to keep track of their heart rate.

The stretching and toning group exercised at the same frequency and duration but needed to keep their HR below 50% of maximum heart rate as they performed  upper and lower body strengthening and stretching exercises. They progressed the exercise intensity through the use of a resistance bands later in the program.

All participants were supervised for the first few weeks, and then continued on their own. They continued to meet once a month with an exercise specialist to review their training log.


The findings of the study were as follows:

  1. Slightly improved memory and cognitive performance in both groups on pencil and paper memory and executive functioning testing. Executive functioning includes thinking skills such as attention, concentration, and the ability to multi-task.
  2. Neither program prevented amyloid plaque progression. Amyloid plaques are clumps in the brain made of beta amyloid (a type of protein fragment) that form in between neurons. This is one abnormal finding found in Alzhiemer’s disease.
  3. Most participants in the aerobic exercise group had significant improvement in cardiorespiratory fitness
  4. Participants in the aerobic exercise group who had amyloid plaques when they started the exercise program, showed less shrinking of the hippocampus over time. This is a positive finding as the hippocampi (you have two of them) are small structures deep inside the brain that are important in new learning and memory.


The researchers believe that better blood flow, chemical changes, and creation of new brain cells were causing the improvements. They concluded that: “Collectively these findings suggest benefits of both aerobic exercise and stretching and toning exercise on neuropsychological function in aMCI patients.” (page 431).


If you are not currently doing regular aerobic exercise, these findings may give you additional motivation to get started. Try Dr. Shandera's suggestions to get started. Mayo Clinic encourages a consultation with a physician before starting a vigorous exercise program. He or she may suggest that you have certain tests first. This may be the case for people who have diabetes or more than one risk factor for heart disease, and for men over age 45 and women over age 55.

In addition to speaking with your physician, for more information on starting an exercise program, finding the proper intensity, and how to measure maximum heart rate, please refer to this article by Mayo Clinic.

Have you had some success getting active?  Do you see other benefits? Let us know what's working for you and how it is working!


Interested in more newsfeed posts like this? Go to the Living with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) blog.

With the diagnosis of MCI summer of 2015 we started an exercise class with Silver Sneakers at our local fitness center. Often the cost of these classes are covered by your medical insurance. In our case we pay out of pocket and consider it preventive medicine. The class is held three days a week, 45 minutes long. Our class size is close to 100 seniors who understand the over-all value of regular exercise. It becomes a part of your routine, and we are positive this has been a big factor in keeping the MCI from progressing these pass years. Bonnie

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