The effect of exercise training on cognitive function in older adults with mild cognitive impairment: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials

Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2013 Nov;21(11):1086-97. doi: 10.1016/j.jagp.2013.02.018. Epub 2013 Jul 3.


Objectives: Investigations of exercise and cognition have primarily focused on healthy or demented older adults, and results have been equivocal in individuals with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Our aim was to evaluate efficacy of exercise on cognition in older adults with MCI.

Design: We conducted a meta-analysis of random controlled trials (RCTs) of exercise effects on cognitive outcomes in adults with MCI. Searches were conducted in Medline, EMBASE, CINAHL, PEDro, SPORTSDICUS, PsychInfo, and PubMed.

Participants: Adults aged over 65 years with MCI or Mini-Mental State Exam mean score 24-28 inclusive.

Measurements: Study quality was assessed using the PEDro scale; data on participant and intervention characteristics and outcomes were extracted, followed by meta-analysis.

Results: Fourteen RCTs (1,695 participants; age 65-95 years) met inclusion criteria. Quality was modest and under-powering for small effects prevalent. Overall, 42% of effect sizes (ESs) were potentially clinically relevant (ES >0.20) with only 8% of cognitive outcomes statistically significant. Meta-analysis revealed negligible but significant effects of exercise on verbal fluency (ES: 0.17 [0.04, 0.30]). No significant benefit was found for additional executive measures, memory, or information processing. Overall results were inconsistent with benefits varying across exercise types and cognitive domains.

Conclusions: There is very limited evidence that exercise improves cognitive function in individuals with MCI, although published research is of moderate quality and inconclusive due to low statistical power. Questions remain regarding the magnitude, generalization, persistence, and mechanisms of benefits. Large-scale, high-quality RCTs are required to determine if exercise improves cognition or reduces dementia incidence in those with MCI.

Keywords: Exercise; MCI; cognition.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cognition*
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / therapy*
  • Exercise Therapy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic*