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Study seeks to pinpoint perfect mix of physical activity for aging and brain health

The five-year, NIH funded COMET clinical trial is the largest of its kind to compare aerobic, resistance training or a combination of both while looking at cognition in older adults.

Older woman exercises while trainer watches
What's the best combination of physical activity to maintain cognition and functional health as we age? The Combined Exercise Trial, or COMET, is a clinical trial aiming to find the best approach.

With current public health recommendations touting exercise as an important key to a healthy lifestyle, seniors have long been lacing up their sneakers and carving out time to get their hearts pumping while adding in some critical strength training.  

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control encourages older adults to aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week, along with at least two days of strength training, which may involve using weights or body weight to build or maintain muscle.

But is that the right mix of physical activity? Is there a different combination that will better help older adults maintain their cognition and functional health as they age? That’s what researchers at the University of Kansas Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (KU ADRC) and the KU Center for Physical Activity and Weight Management (CPAWM) want to find out in the Combined Exercise Trial, or COMET study.

COMET is the largest study of its kind to specifically compare aerobic activity, strength training or a combination of both aerobic and strength training while looking at cognition in older adults.

Researchers are seeking 280 people, ages 65 to 80, to participate in the five-year clinical trial funded by the National Institutes of Health.  

“What makes COMET different from other exercise trials we’ve done in the past is we haven’t previously examined strength training,” said Amanda Szabo-Reed, Ph.D., research assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine and in the KU Center for Physical Activity and Weight Management, who serves as a co-principal investigator on the study, along with Eric Vidoni, PT, Ph.D., an associate professor at the KU ADRC. “With the exception of a small pilot that was done several years ago, we have focused primarily on aerobic activity.”

Study investigators are looking to see whether following the public health guidelines of a combination of aerobic and strength training is superior to just doing one, either aerobic or strength training alone, not only for the brain but also functionally for older adults.  

Participants in the study will be randomly divided into four equally numbered groups and asked to exercise under the guidance of a personal trainer for one year. One group will do 150 minutes of aerobic activity each week, while a second group will do two strength training sessions weekly. A third group will perform 150 minutes of aerobic activity, plus two days of strength training each week, and the fourth group will engage in only flexibility and stretching activities.

Participation in the study includes a paid gym membership. Most exercise sessions will take place at a YMCA location, where local COVID-19 safe and health guidelines will be followed.

While there’s lots of research pointing to the benefits of exercise, including that physical activity is good for the brain and that it can help slow or prevent the aging process, Szabo-Reed said one of the goals of COMET is to learn if there’s a specific type or combination of exercise that’s superior in benefitting older adults’ brain health.

“The recommendation is for older adults to participate in both aerobic activity and strength training, but there’s no literature to really say that it’s that much better, or you’re going to see any additional cognitive gains from participating in strength training in addition to aerobic activity,” Szabo-Reed said. “That’s what we want to better understand.”   

For more information about the COMET study or to enroll in the trial, call 913-588-0555, email or visit the KU ADRC website.

KU School of Medicine

University of Kansas Medical Center
Department of Neurology
Mailstop 2012
3901 Rainbow Blvd.
Kansas City, KS 66160
Phone: 913-588-6970
Fax: 913-588-6965