Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society

Physical Activity Is Positively Associated with Episodic Memory in Aging

Scott M. Hayesa1a2 c1, Michael L. Aloscoa1a3, Jasmeet P. Hayesa4a5, Margaret Caddena6, Kristina M. Petersona1, Kelly Allsupa7, Daniel E. Formana7a8, Reisa A. Sperlinga9a10a11a12 and Mieke Verfaelliea1

a1 Memory Disorders Research Center, VA Boston Healthcare System and Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, Massachusetts

a2 Neuroimaging Research for Veterans Center, VA Boston Healthcare System, Boston, Massachusetts

a3 Kent State University, Department of Psychological Sciences, Kent, Ohio

a4 National Center for PTSD, VA Boston Healthcare System, Boston, Massachusetts

a5 Department of Psychiatry, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, Massachusetts

a6 Department of Psychology, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania

a7 Geriatric Research, Education, and Clinical Center, VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

a8 Geriatric Cardiology Section, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Pennsylvania

a9 Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, MGH Radiology, Charlestown, Massachusetts

a10 Department of Neurology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts

a11 Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts

a12 Center of Alzheimer’s Research and Treatment, Department of Neurology, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts


Aging is associated with performance reductions in executive function and episodic memory, although there is substantial individual variability in cognition among older adults. One factor that may be positively associated with cognition in aging is physical activity. To date, few studies have objectively assessed physical activity in young and older adults, and examined whether physical activity is differentially associated with cognition in aging. Young (n=29, age 18–31 years) and older adults (n=31, ages 55–82 years) completed standardized neuropsychological testing to assess executive function and episodic memory capacities. An experimental face-name relational memory task was administered to augment assessment of episodic memory. Physical activity (total step count and step rate) was objectively assessed using an accelerometer, and hierarchical regressions were used to evaluate relationships between cognition and physical activity. Older adults performed more poorly on tasks of executive function and episodic memory. Physical activity was positively associated with a composite measure of visual episodic memory and face-name memory accuracy in older adults. Physical activity associations with cognition were independent of sedentary behavior, which was negatively correlated with memory performance. Physical activity was not associated with cognitive performance in younger adults. Physical activity is positively associated with episodic memory performance in aging. The relationship appears to be strongest for face-name relational memory and visual episodic memory, likely attributable to the fact that these tasks make strong demands on the hippocampus. The results suggest that physical activity relates to cognition in older, but not younger adults. (JINS, 2015, 21, 780–790)

(Received April 15 2015)

(Revised September 02 2015)

(Accepted September 03 2015)


  • Executive function;
  • Cognition;
  • Exercise;
  • Physical fitness;
  • Actigraph;
  • Accelerometer


c1 Correspondence and reprint requests to: Scott M. Hayes, Memory Disorders Research Center (151A), VA Boston Healthcare System, 150 South Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02130. E-mail: