Improve Attention in Older Individuals with Exercise and Mindfulness

Improve Attention in Older Individuals with Exercise and Mindfulness


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“engaging in mindfulness meditation training improves the maintenance of goal-directed visuospatial attention and may be a useful strategy for counteracting cognitive decline associated with aging.” – Peter Malinowski


One of the primary effects of mindfulness training is an improvement in the ability to pay attention to the task at hand and ignore interfering stimuli. This is an important consequence of mindfulness training and produces improvements in thinking, reasoning, and creativity. The importance of heightened attentional ability to the individual’s ability to navigate the demands of complex modern life cannot be overstated. It helps in school, at work, in relationships, or simply driving a car. As important as attention is, it’s surprising that little is known about the mechanisms by which mindfulness improves attention


There is evidence that mindfulness training improves attention by altering the brain. It appears That mindfulness training increases the size, connectivity, and activity of areas of the brain that are involved in paying attention. A common method to study the activity of the nervous system is to measure the electrical signal at the scalp above brain regions. Changes in this activity are measurable with mindfulness training.


One method to observe attentional processing in the brain is to measure the changes in the electrical activity that occur in response to specific stimuli. These are called event-related, or evoked, potentials or ERPs. The signal following a stimulus changes over time. The fluctuations of the signal after specific periods of time are thought to measure different aspects of the nervous system’s processing of the stimulus. The N2 response in the evoked potential (ERP) is a negative going electrical response occurring between a 1 to 3 tenths of a second following the target stimulus presentation. The N2 component is thought to reflect cognitive control. The P3 response is a positive going electrical response occurring between a 3 to 6 tenths of a second following the target. The P3 component is thought to reflect attentional processing.


In today’s Research News article “Behavioral and ERP Correlates of Long-Term Physical and Mental Training on a Demanding Switch Task.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: ) Burgos and colleagues recruited healthy adults aged 44-65 years. They were separated into groups of participants who practiced for at least 5 years either Tai Chi, Meditation, aerobic exercise, meditation and exercise, or were sedentary. The participants performed a visuospatial task switch test that required the participants to respond to the position of a dot on a screen with the same or opposite hand or to switch back and forth between the two after 2 trials. This measures executive attention. As they were performing the task the electroencephalogram (EEG) was recorded and the evoked potentials to the dot recorded.


They found that on the visuospatial task switch test the Tai Chi and Meditation plus exercise groups performed best, the aerobic exercise group intermediate, and the sedentary group worst. Performance was measured by the reaction times on the switch trials and also on the proportionate change in reaction times on switch trials. In the evoked potentials in the frontal and parietal cortical areas, the groups that had mental plus physical training (Tai Chi and Meditation plus exercise groups) had significantly larger N2 responses on switch trials than the meditation or exercise alone groups. They also found that the larger the N2 response the better the performance on the switch task.


These are interesting results. But the groups were composed of people who chose to engage in these differing activities and the groups may be composed of people who differ in other ways other than the chosen activity. It would be best in future research if random assignment and training were used. Nevertheless, the results suggest that executive attention is best in people who practice mental and physical exercises. These are superior to either alone and particularly superior to being sedentary.  It was not studied here, but the better performance in attentional ability would predict better overall performance in life and resistance to the mental decline with aging.


Both the performance on the task and the N2 responses reflect better executive control of attention. This means that the participants who performed both mindfulness and physical exercise improved their ability to control attention. Mindfulness practices such as Tai Chi and meditation are known to alter the brain and improve attention. But the reason why exercise supplements these benefits is unknown. It is possible that exercise isn’t responsible for improvement but that sedentariness is responsible for deterioration and exercise acts to prevent this deterioration. Nevertheless, the results are clear mindfulness plus physical activity alters the brain in such a way as to improve the individual’s ability to control attention.


So, improve attention in older individuals with exercise and mindfulness.


mindfulness may be a way to improve our cognitive control as we age by teaching us to improve our ability to focus our attention on a particular task.” – Holy Tiret


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ and on Twitter @MindfulResearch


Study Summary


Burgos, P. I., Cruz, G., Hawkes, T., Rojas-Sepúlveda, I., & Woollacott, M. (2021). Behavioral and ERP Correlates of Long-Term Physical and Mental Training on a Demanding Switch Task. Frontiers in psychology, 12, 569025.



Physical and mental training are associated with positive effects on executive functions throughout the lifespan. However, evidence of the benefits of combined physical and mental regimes over a sedentary lifestyle remain sparse. The goal of this study was to investigate potential mechanisms, from a source-resolved event-related-potential perspective, that could explain how practicing long-term physical and mental exercise can benefit neural processing during the execution of an attention switching task. Fifty-three healthy community volunteers who self-reported long-term practice of Tai Chi (n = 10), meditation + exercise (n = 16), simple aerobics (n = 15), or a sedentary lifestyle (n = 12), aged 47.8 ± 14.6 (SD) were included in this analysis. All participants undertook high-density electroencephalography recording during a switch paradigm. Our results indicate that people who practice physical and mental exercise perform better in a task-switching paradigm. Our analysis revealed an additive effect of the combined practice of physical and mental exercise over physical exercise only. In addition, we confirmed the participation of frontal, parietal and cingulate areas as generators of event-related-potential components (N2-like and P3-like) commonly associated to the performance of switch tasks. Particularly, the N2-like component of the parietal and frontal domains showed significantly greater amplitudes in the exercise and mental training groups compared with aerobics and sedentary groups. Furthermore, we showed better performance associated with greater N2-like amplitudes. Our multivariate analysis revealed that activity type was the most relevant factor to explain the difference between groups, with an important influence of age, and body mass index, and with small effects of educational years, cardiovascular capacity, and sex. These results suggest that chronic combined physical and mental training may confer significant benefits to executive function in normally aging adults, probably through more efficient early attentional processing. Future experimental studies are needed to confirm our results and understand the mechanisms on parieto-frontal networks that contribute to the cognitive improvement associated with practicing combined mental and aerobic exercise, while carefully controlling confounding factors, such as age and body mass index.



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