1Behavioural Science Centre, Stirling Management School, University of Stirling, Stirling, UK
2School of Medicine and Dentistry, Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, UK
3Health Psychology, Institute of Applied Health Sciences, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, UK
Physically active lifestyles contribute to better executive function. However, it is unclear whether high levels of executive function lead people to be more active. This study uses a large sample and multi-wave data to identify whether a reciprocal association exists between physical activity and executive function. Participants were 4555 older adults tracked across four waves of the English Longitudinal Study of Aging. In each wave executive function was assessed using a verbal fluency test and a letter cancelation task and participants reported their physical activity levels. Fixed effects regressions showed that changes in executive function corresponded with changes in physical activity. In longitudinal multilevel models low levels of physical activity led to subsequent declines in executive function. Importantly, poor executive function predicted reductions in physical activity over time. This association was found to be over 50% larger in magnitude than the contribution of physical activity to changes in executive function. This is the first study to identify evidence for a robust bidirectional link between executive function and physical activity in a large sample of older adults tracked over time.