Effects of physical activity on cognitive functioning in middle age: evidence from the Whitehall II prospective cohort study

Am J Public Health. 2005 Dec;95(12):2252-8. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2004.055574.


Objectives: We examined the association between physical activity and cognitive functioning in middle age.

Methods: Data were derived from a prospective occupational cohort study of 10308 civil servants aged 35-55 years at baseline (phase 1; 1985-1988). Physical activity level, categorized as low, medium, or high, was assessed at phases 1, 3 (1991-1994), and 5 (1997-1999). Cognitive functioning was tested at phase 5, when respondents were 46-68 years old.

Results: In both prospective (odds ratio [OR] = 1.65; 95% confidence interval [CI]=1.30, 2.10) and cross-sectional (OR=1.79; 95% CI=1.38, 2.32) analyses, low levels of physical activity were a risk factor for poor performance on a measure of fluid intelligence. Analyses aimed at assessing cumulative effects (summary of physical activity levels at the 3 time points) showed a graded linear relationship with fluid intelligence, with persistently low levels of physical activity being particularly harmful (OR=2.21; 95% CI=1.37, 3.57).

Conclusions: Low levels of physical activity are a risk factor for cognitive functioning in middle age, fluid intelligence in particular.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • London
  • Male
  • Middle Aged