Light, regular exercise can help improve the cognitive, as well as physical, health of adults with Down syndrome, suggested a study.

Down syndrome is a genetic disorder caused by the presence of all or part of a third copy of chromosome 21. Approximately one in every thousand children is born with Down syndrome.

It is usually associated with developmental delays, mild to moderate intellectual disability, and characteristic physical features.

The study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, is the first to investigate the effects of physical and cognitive exercise on people with Down syndrome.

The results showed that short bursts of walking can lead to improved information processing and attention after just eight weeks.

The role that exercise can play in cognitive growth represents a breakthrough in thinking about what’s best for adults with Down syndrome. There is also evidence that people with Down syndrome do not typically meet the recommended levels of daily physical activity.

“Walking, and exercise in general, is not a natural activity for many people in the Down syndrome community, but this study shows walking is a powerful tool for developing cognitive and executive function,” said Dr. Dan Gordon, Associate Professor in Cardiorespiratory Exercise Physiology at Anglia Ruskin University in the UK.

“For most people, walking is a subconscious activity, but it still involves lots of information processing and decision-making. In our participants with Down syndrome, we think walking has the effect of activating locomotive pathways, driving cognitive development, and improving information processing, vigilance, and attention,” he added.

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The study involved 83 adult participants — 40 females and 43 males, aged between 18 and 48, from 10 countries — who were assigned to one of four groups for eight weeks.

Participants in an exercise-only group completed cardiorespiratory exercise, which involved walking three times a week for 30 minutes per session, while a second group took part in a series of cognitive and executive function exercises. A combined group did physical and cognitive exercises, while the fourth group did neither.

The positive effect of eight weeks of exercise on physical fitness was shown by significant increases in the total distance covered in a six-minute walk test, with the exercise-only and the combined groups improving by 11.4 percent and 9.9 percent, respectively.

The Sustained Attention to Response Test (SART) measures error rates during a cognitive activity. Researchers found a significant reduction in errors and an increase in correct responses in both the exercise-only and combined groups.

During the STROOP test, which measures the speed and accuracy of decision-making, researchers noted a significant improvement in the exercise-only group, the cognitive training group, and the combined group.

While walking is often a subconscious activity, the researchers noted that the activation of locomotive neural pathways through the process of walking drives cognitive development, as it necessitates people with Down syndrome to become more vigilant and pay attention to the task at hand.