Midlife aerobic exercise and brain structural integrity: Associations with age and cardiorespiratory fitness

Takashi Tarumi, Tsubasa Tomoto, Justin Repshas, Ciwen Wang, Linda S. Hynan, C. Munro Cullum, David C. Zhu, Rong Zhang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Lower midlife physical activity is associated with higher risk of neurodegenerative disease in late life. However, it remains unknown whether physical exercise and fitness are associated with brain structural integrity during midlife. The purpose of this study was to compare brain structures between middle-aged aerobically trained adults (MA), middle-aged sedentary (MS), and young sedentary (YS) adults. Thirty MA (54±4 years), 30 MS (54±4 years), and 30 YS (32±6 years) participants (50% women) underwent measurements of brain volume, cortical thickness, and white matter (WM) fiber integrity using MRI. MA participants had aerobic training for 24.8±9.6 years and the highest cardiorespiratory fitness level (i.e., peak oxygen uptake: VO2peak) among all groups. Global WM integrity, as assessed with fractional anisotropy (FA) from diffusion tensor imaging, was lower in the MS compared with the YS group. However, global FA in the MA group was significantly higher than that in the MS group (P<0.05) and at a similar level to the YS group. Furthermore, tract-based spatial statistical analysis demonstrated that FA in the anterior, superior, and limbic WM tracts (e.g., the genu of the corpus callosum, superior longitudinal fasciculus, uncinate fasciculus) was higher in the MA compared with MS groups, and positively associated with VO2peak, independently from age and sex. From cortical thickness analysis, MS and MA participants showed thinner prefrontal and parieto-temporal areas than the YS group. On the other hand, the MA group exhibited thicker precentral, postcentral, pericalcarine, and lateral occipital cortices than the MS and YS groups. But, the insula and right superior frontal gyrus showed thinner cortical thickness in the MA compared with the MS groups. Collectively, these findings suggest that midlife aerobic exercise is associated with higher WM integrity and greater primary motor and somatosensory cortical thickness.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number117512
StatePublished - Jan 15 2021


  • Aerobic exercise
  • Brain volume
  • Cardiorespiratory fitness
  • Cortical thickness
  • Midlife
  • White matter integrity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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