NIU faculty explore how aerobics and strength training improve brain function

We understand that exercise improves cardiovascular health. But recent research shows that aerobics and strength training also boost brain health and function – in both healthy adults and those with stroke, dementia or other cognitive impairments.

Jamie Meyer

In fact, Jamie Mayer, speech pathologist and associate professor in the NIU School of Allied Health and Communicative Disorders, says she’s discovered some surprising findings during her research over the past two years into the role of aerobic exercise in maximizing cognition.

“I think people will be surprised to see just how strong the link is between exercise and cognition and to learn about the neurological links between the two,” she says. “Resistance training (weightlifting) seems just as important as aerobic training, and moderate-intensity aerobic exercise actually has better outcomes than high-intensity (and low intensity) exercise, in terms of cognition. The most common cognitive changes following initiation and maintenance of an aerobic exercise program involve executive function, such as problem-solving and planning.”

The public will have a chance to learn about this research at the next NIU STEM Café on June 16, where Mayer will be joined by Dave Benner, Jr., gerontology instructor in the NIU Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education for presentations and a lively discussion.

While Mayer’s research interest grows out of her background as a medical speech-language pathologist who focuses on behavioral treatment strategies to maximize cognition and communication, Benner comes from an athletic training and kinesiology background. He teaches the Clinical Experience in Exercise Gerontology course at NIU, and his research is focused primarily around balance and fall prevention, exercise equipment and cognition in older adults. Both Mayer and Benner supervise NIU students working with older adults in clinical classroom settings, which allows students to gain hands-on experience and engage with the community while advancing research in the field.

David Brenner

Benner’s courses partner students majoring in kinesiology and athletic training with older adult clients at Oak Crest Retirement Center. The students work as personal trainers or exercise coaches throughout the semester and are tasked with helping improve their client’s physical fitness, which includes strength, balance, mobility, coordination, flexibility, cognition and fall prevention. At the STEM Café, Benner will share experiences from this work and discuss how physical activity is directly associated with a higher quality of life and improved brain function.

NIU students majoring in kinesiology and athletic training work with clients at Oak Crest Retirement Center.

Mayer teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in neuroscience, medical speech pathology and cognitive-communicative disorders. She founded a choir for individuals with dementia residing in long-term care and is the faculty supervisor for the Music & Memory program, which matches undergraduate students to individuals with dementia to provide personalized music and other types of stimuli to encourage reminiscence. At the STEM Café, Mayer will discuss the role of aerobic exercise along with other techniques for maximizing cognition for older adults. She’ll focus especially on the effects of social isolation on brain health and function and address what we can do to help minimize the social isolation of adults in long-term care facilities – especially during COVID.

“The reality of COVID-19 restrictions in the long-term care setting and how it has played out on a day-to-day basis for residents and staff is incredibly sobering,” Mayer says. “I think the neurological findings linking social isolation to cognition will help encourage all of us – including healthy adults – to continue to seek out new ways to connect with others, even if it still has to be virtual for now. I hope attendees will enjoy hearing about some of the innovative and intergenerational programming we’ve tried. Perhaps they will think about getting involved on a volunteer basis, as well!”

The STEM Café will take place online at 6 p.m. on June 16 and is free and open to the public. Register at

Northern Illinois University STEM Cafés are sponsored by NIU STEAM and are designed to increase public awareness of the critical role that STEM fields play in our everyday lives. For more information, visit or contact Judith Dymond, Ed.D., at 815-753-4751 or email

Source: NIU Today CHHS News

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