The researchers say their results are encouraging news for older people who may be put off exercising just because they are reluctant to go to a gym.
The team, from the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal, an institution affiliated with the University of Montreal in Canada, reports the findings in the journal AGE.
With his colleagues, lead author and exercise physiologist Dr. Nicolas Berryman examined the effect of different forms of exercise on executive function in older adults.
Executive function is the part of cognition that allow us to respond effectively as our environment changes. For example, we use it to plan, organize, pay attention, remember details and manage time and space.
There was a time when scientists believed only aerobic exercise or "cardio" - for instance running, jogging, swimming and walking - could improve executive function. But Dr. Berryman says more recently scientists have discovered that strength-training also has benefits. And now:
"Our new findings suggest that structured activities that aim to improve gross motor skills can also improve executive functions, which decline as we age."
Forty-seven healthy adults aged 62 to 84 years completed the study in three groups. Each group completed a training program, focusing on different exercise methods. The exercise sessions took place three times a week for 8 weeks.
One group completed a program that focused on high-intensity aerobic exercise, another focused on strength-training, and the third group performed tasks that exercised gross motor activity such as coordination, balance, throwing and catching a ball, locomotive tasks and flexibility.
All participants underwent assessments of physical fitness and cognitive performance before and after their 8-week programs. Physical fitness was assessed using measures of body composition, VO2 max and maximum strength. Cognitive performance was measured with a standard test of executive function known as Random Number Generation.
You do not have to go the gym to do exercise that benefits the brain
The results showed that while physical fitness only improved in the aerobics and strength-training groups, all three groups showed similar improvements in cognitive performance.
Many of the exercises the participants in the third group performed can easily be done at home. The researchers say this is encouraging news for sedentary older people who may be put off exercising just because they are reluctant to go to a gym. They could make a difference by just doing any activity they liked at home.
"I would like seniors to remember that they have the power to improve their physical and cognitive health at any age and that they have many avenues to reach this goal," Dr. Berryman urges.
Funds from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research helped finance the study.
In September 2014, Medical News Today learned of another study that also reinforces the keep moving message. Researchers from the University of Illinois suggested even if you exercise at the end of the day for half an hour, sitting too much can be bad for the brain.