Expert Q&A about exercise, ageing and brain health

Social Sciences

- University of Victoria

The pandemic has affected gyms, yoga studios and group workouts but staying active is critical to brain health, say researchers of a new study looking at the impact of exercise for older adults.
A new UVic study is taking a closer look at exercise and brain health in older adults. Image: Shutterstock

The global pandemic has affected gyms, yoga studios and group workouts but staying active is critical to our brain health, say researchers of a new study exploring the impact on older adults of exercise on executive functions such as everyday problem solving and decision-making.

eFIT (executive function improvement training) is led by University of Victoria neuropsychologist Mauricio Garcia-Barrera and a team of graduate students who are forging new research paths into our understanding of exercise and executive functions.

What’s at stake with this study is our understanding of potential mechanisms that can help extend the longevity of these brain processes that decline with age. By tackling these issues, we hope to develop a better understanding of the effects of physical exercise on executive functioning, mood and stress in older adults, particularly during the global pandemic with the ongoing urgent need for social distancing.
— UVic neuropsychologist Mauricio Garcia-Barrera

Q. Can you explain executive functioning and the eFIT study?

A. Executive functioning is a cognitive process that plays a crucial role in everything we do in our lives. Basic everyday problem solving, self-regulation and decision-making can decline with age, which also contributes to stress as we get older.

The eFIT study aims to bring physical exercise to the homes of older adults, in the form of an eight-week remote program that blends guided strength workouts, created and led by kinesiologists, with aerobic activities that participants can choose to do on their own, such as biking or playing tennis. In addition, aspects of mood and other areas of functioning will be examined.

Q. What do we already know about exercise, ageing and the brain?

A. Physical exercise is becoming a very strong candidate to be the top prescribed activity to help the ageing brain remain healthy longer. Getting “off the couch” or becoming more active by gardening, walking or socializing and doing more moderate-to-vigorous physical exercise such as brisk walking, bicycling and playing tennis help the brain to take in more oxygen. Physical exercise helps us to keep the brain more plastic and, with this, our capacity to think creatively and flexibly, as well as to assume new challenges and new learning.

We already know that some brain capacities decline with ageing and we know there is a lot of individual variability, given factors such as stress, chronic health issues, genetics and lifestyle—all of which can have a differential impact. Our research results will demonstrate whether exercise does improve executive function in older adults.

Mauricio Garcia-Barrera headshot
Garcia-Barrera, who answers questions about the new eFIT study

Q. What are the goals of the eFIT study?

A. The goals of this research study include:

  • Investigate the impact of physical exercise on outcomes of executive functioning, mood and daily functioning;
  • Use a daily assessment approach called Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA) to examine the role of fatigue, stress and diet, in the relationship between physical exercise and these outcomes;
  • Evaluate how motivation and mindfulness along with physical activity impact executive functioning.

Q. What are the benefits of being involved in this study?

A. Participants may experience improved fitness, health, mood and cognition (specifically, executive functioning, attention and memory) through a regular physical activity program.

They will learn to monitor their weekly physical exercise with the support of daily surveys coming directly to their phones or tablets.

They will also gain greater awareness and understanding about the potential benefits of exercise on executive function in older adults while meeting the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines of moderate activity for at least 150 minutes per week.

In addition, data collected from this study would help students progress in their education and training.

Learn more

eFIT is calling for volunteers, adults 65 years and older who live in Canada and are not regularly exercising. Details about participating in eFIT can be found at or interested members of the public can contact the researchers directly at .

Collaborators include UVic researchers Ryan Rhodes, Jonathan Rush and Scott Hofer as well as a team of UVic psychology students and kinesiologists from Tall Tree Integrated Health.

The eFIT study is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.


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Keywords: health, community, psychology, COVID, research

People: Mauricio Garcia-Barrera

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