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April 18, 2013 Volume 34, No. 27

Health scientist at ‘Aging Well’ lecture encourages older people to remain active

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KEEP MOVING Arthur Kramer, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Illinois, said physical exercise builds cognitive function better than the many artificial mental exercises available online and purchased in computer programs. Kramer was a lecturer April 11 at the Nutrition and Exercise Research Day at MU. Photo by Nicholas Benner.


Exercise helps cognitive function, researcher says

When Arthur Kramer said “take a hike,” he wasn’t ordering his audience to get lost. Kramer, director of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science & Technology and the Swanlund chair and professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Illinois, was talking about the benefits of walking on cognitive function. 

Kramer was one of the speakers at the Nutrition and Exercise Research Day held April 11 in the School of Medicine’s Acuff Auditorium. The other speaker was Julie Mattison of the National Institute on Aging, who discussed nutrition interventions in rhesus monkeys. The day’s theme was “Aging Well.”

Kramer spoke at the Hogan Memorial Lecture, named after nutrition researcher Albert Hogan, and Mattison spoke at the O’Dell Lecture, named after MU nutrition researcher Boyd O’Dell. The week of events, sponsored by the MU nutrition and exercise physiology department, has been held since 1966.

During his lecture, Kramer said that when older adults focus on brain training — such as playing  computer-based games to enhance memory — they get better only at what they focus on. They see improvements in memory but not in reasoning and speed. 

A better way to improve the brain is aerobic exercise. If older adults walk more, such as an hour a day three days a week, the cognitive benefits are much broader than training through artificial mental exercises. He cited a study of a group of people who walked and a group who performed nonaerobic activities, such as tai chi and yoga. The walkers had higher increases in brain volume in regions such as the hippocampus that generally show age-related decline. 

After a year, the group who walked delayed brain volume loss due to aging by two and a half years. 

Kramer also gave an example suggesting age reversal.

Olga Kotelko, 94, is a Canadian track-and-field athlete with 23 world records. She didn’t start working out until she was age 75. She now spends six hours a day at the gym. Kramer said Kotelko has the brain of a 60-year-old. 

Although most of Kramer’s talk focused on the health of older adults, he also discussed child obesity. Children need one to two hours of physical exercise daily, and if given a choice, they prefer playground games to walking. The effect of either activity on cognitive function is equally beneficial. Research shows children who exercise score higher on math tests and make better decisions.  

Feeling motivated to take that hike? Perhaps you need one more incentive. 

Healthy for Life holds two weekly drawings for MU faculty and staff: one for completion of all three steps of the Wellness Incentive by April 30, and another for turning in a “tag” card, which encourages co-workers to complete their health screening. Doing either earns you $100 and a chance to win a FitBit pedometer. For more information visit

— Kelsey Allen