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Can exercise help the Down syndrome community?

Published: 22 March 2021 at 14:33

Running shoes

New Mindsets study is examining the link between physical fitness and mental fitness

A major international study has been launched to investigate whether exercise can improve cognition for people with Down syndrome.

The Mindsets study is a partnership between the Canadian Down Syndrome Society, BrainHQ, and Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), and the researchers are looking to recruit participants from the UK.

There is anecdotal evidence that exercise can lead to an improvement in mental fitness for people in the Down syndrome community, but the effect hasn’t been studied extensively. Because of this lack of data, many doctors and parents don’t prioritise physical fitness for people with Down syndrome.

If successful, it is hoped that published findings from the Mindsets study can lead to exercise becoming an integral part of life for people with Down syndrome.

The study will collect data on the impact of physical and brain exercises on physical and cognitive abilities over time. The custom-designed Mindsets app gathers exercise data from Fitbits along with data on brain exercises from BrainHQ. 

Researchers will also carry out standard physical and cognitive assessments of participants at the beginning and the end of the study, making it possible to precisely measure the impact of exercise. The app also connects researchers with the participants, helping them stay on track during the study.

The study is being run by Dr Dan Gordon of Anglia Ruskin University. A pilot study has just started, and the researchers are now looking to recruit over 200 people, aged 18 or over, to take part in the next stage.

Dr Gordon, Associate Professor in Cardiorespiratory Exercise Physiology at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, said:

“This is a landmark study that we hope will show just how far-reaching the positive effects of exercise can be for the Down syndrome population.

“We already know that exercise can provide enormous benefits to overall health and well-being and have seen many isolated examples of exercise having an impact on cognition. But definitive data just doesn’t exist yet, and that’s why a study of this size is so important. 

“Even a slight increase in cognition can lead to an incredible shift in the quality of life for a person with Down syndrome. This would allow for more independent living and make activities of daily living much easier to accomplish.”


The brain training program BrainHQ, made by Posit Science, is being used for the cognitive exercise aspect of the study. Dr Henry Mahncke, CEO of Posit Science, said:

“To adapt BrainHQ for use in this study, we hand-selected the right set of exercises to ensure we are precisely targeting core cognitive abilities, such as speed of processing, attention, and memory.”


Ben Tarr, a board member of the Canadian Down Syndrome Society and father of Leo, who has Down syndrome, said:

“We have a number of cognitive therapies to help my son learn, grow, and become more independent as he gets older. But exercise just isn’t treated as an important part of that process.

“My wife and I have even heard some doctors go so far as to discourage strenuous exercise due to medical concerns such as heart defects and low muscle-tone. But if this study proves a link between the two, then that could have an enormous impact on the lives of people with Down syndrome around the world.”

The Canadian Down Syndrome Society (CDSS) is working closely with leading advertising agency FCB Canada. Nancy Crimi-Lamanna, Chief Creative Officer at FCB Canada, said:

“Our work with CDSS over the past several years has really advocated for the needs of the Down syndrome community.

“If we’re successful in proving a link between exercise and cognition, then this study has the power to change the way we think about learning and development. This will help to break down the systemic barriers that prevent people with Down syndrome from living their fullest lives. Beyond the Down syndrome community, this could also have far-reaching implications for others living with cognitive challenges.”


For further information about the Mindsets study, or to register interest in taking part, please visit http://mindsetsstudy.com