The list of good reasons to be physically active is never-ending. To name a few, it can reduce the odds of developing terrible conditions (including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes), help you lose weight, lower your blood pressure and prevent depression. But according to recent research, there’s another benefit to add to the list: Exercise changes the brain.
What’s the latest research?
In a new study published on May 30th in the journal Neurology: Clinical Practice, researchers led by Joyce Gomes-Osman, an assistant professor at the University of Miami, set out to find an “exercise prescription” for the brain.
Gomes-Osman and her team reviewed 98 existing studies, involving more than 11,000 participants, that connected exercise to more than 122 different tests of brain function. Based on that data, the researchers found that people who exercised about 52 hours over a period of about six months showed the strongest improvements on the tests. On average, the subjects exercised for about an hour, three times a week.
People in the study showed the biggest improvements in their ability to solve problems and process information. These included enhancements in processing speed (the amount of time needed to complete a task) and executive function (the ability to manage time, pay attention, and achieve goals).
The only strong correlation between exercise and brain function had to do with the overall cumulative time people spent exercising. The researchers did not find associations between mental sharpness and the frequency, intensity or length of time people exercised.
How can exercise affect the brain?
Physical activity improves blood circulation all over the body—and that absolutely includes the brain.
Working out reduces inflammation and stimulates the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells and the growth of new blood vessels in the brain. Additionally, exercise preserves the brain’s nerve network that starts to decline with age, boosts the function of neurons and improves blood flow to brain cells.
What does this mean for me?
Previously, standard recommendations advised half an hour of moderate physical activity on most days of the week, or 150 minutes total per week.
Although there were already recommendations for the precise amount of exercise needed to improve heart health, there was no equivalent “dosage” of exercise for cognitive health … until now.
Gomes-Osman and her team of researchers found that exercising for at least 52 hours over a six month period is associated with improved cognitive performance in older adults, both with and without cognitive impairment. The different forms of exercise that were tested and proved beneficial were aerobic, resistance (strength) training, mind-body exercises, and combinations of the two varieties.
So get out there and get exercising—Your overall health will seriously benefit from it!