Studies have shown that regular physical activity can improve motor performance in young adults. Researchers recently looked into whether similar effects are seen in older adults.
Moving our upper limbs in a smooth, consistent manner is something we take for granted, and is necessary for a range of activities involving grasping or holding objects. This motor performance declines as we age and naturally has a strong impact on our daily lives. Research in young adults shows that maintaining this ability could be as simple as undertaking regular physical activity. However, it is not known if this is also true for older adults.
Recently, literature retrieved from four electronic biomedical databases was systematically reviewed to determine whether regular physical exercise (chronic exercise) or short bouts of exercise (acute exercise) could influence motor performance or motor learning in the arms, hands, and/or fingers (upper extremities) of healthy, older adults who are more than 60 years of age. The results were recently published in the European Review of Aging and Physical Activity.
Only 25 studies were identified that investigated the links between chronic exercise and motor performance or learning in older adults. There were nine intervention studies that compared participants who received an intervention to those who did not and 16 cross-sectional studies that simply compared traits between participants. There was a slight positive association between chronic physical activity and enhanced motor performance, with 12 studies reporting a positive association, eight studies with inconclusive results, and five showing no effects. Several factors influenced these results, including the study design, type of exercise, the type of motor task used to test motor performance and learning (hand-arm movements, force matching tasks, manual dexterity tasks or speed tapping tasks) and exercise intensity.
Notably, interventional studies reported more promising results compared with cross-sectional studies regardless of sex, cardiovascular or general fitness levels, type of sports activity undertaken, or the time periods involved. Motor performance was more pronounced when higher intensity interventions were used. Chronic physical activity also had an overall positive association with hand-arm movements, which are the most complex of the motor tasks tested.
Only three studies looked at how physical activity affected motor learning. Each study reported that higher levels of cardiovascular fitness or physical activity had positive effects on the acquisition phase of motor learning; however, the results regarding longer-term motor retention were inconsistent.
Surprisingly, the influence of acute exercise on motor performance and learning in older adults could not be addressed as the authors did not identify any relevant reviews. However, as studies in younger adults have shown promising results, the authors recommend that further research be undertaken.
Overall, it appears that regular physical activity may indeed help to improve and maintain motor performance in the upper extremities of older adults. This is not unexpected, given the association between physical activity and enhanced cognitive processing abilities as performing motor tasks also requires cognitive processing. Given the degree of ambiguity in the literature, the authors recommend that future studies be undertaken, and emphasize that it would be best to use an interventional design with objective measures of physical and cardiovascular fitness levels, and evaluate participation in activities in more detail. The information gained from such studies could help devise interventions designed to help older adults improve and maintain motor performance and learning, and could even have implications for the area of stroke rehabilitation.
Written by Natasha Tetlow, PhD
Hubner L & Voelcker-Rehage. Does physical activity benefit motor performance and learning of upper extremity tasks in older adults? – A systematic review. Eur Rev Aging Phys Act. 2017; 14:15. Available from: doi.10.1186s/11556-017-0181-7.