•According to neuroscientists, there is a positive link between physical exercise and cognition.
•However, most people understandably associate exercise with physical rather than mental fitness.
•Recent findings revealed that short-term cognitive gains from physical activity reflect exercise’s long-term brain-boosting benefits.
From reviewing days in advance to snacking on “brain-boosting” food, different people find different ways to improve their cognitive abilities.
Thanks to a new study to be presented at San Francisco’s Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS), though, “working out” might be a good addition to that list.
Muscle + memory
According to Dr. Wendy Suzuki, a neuroscientist at the New York University (NYU), a “strong and direct link” exists between physical activity (such as exercise) and how the brain functions. Interestingly, this generally tends to get ignored, as most people exercise to improve their physical fitness, not enhance their mental acuity.
“People still do not link physical health to brain and cognitive health,” explained Dr. Suzuki, who will head the symposium on the topic.
In the same way that individual, consistent running sessions help build endurance for longer runs, steady workouts produce cognitive benefits that eventually yield long-term positive results.
However, few studies, if any, have looked deeply into the short-term cognitive impacts of exercise and how they mirror long-term ones.
Thus, the findings from the new study, which was led by Dr. Michelle Voss of the University of Iowa, are said to be the first of their kind.
Short-term gains, long-term benefits
Dr. Voss’ study revealed that short-term brain changes due to exercise illustrate the long-term effects of consistent physical activity.
The researchers made the participants follow a 12-week training program involving single sessions of light to moderate physical exercise. The participants used recumbent cycles with motorized pedals, allowing them to exert more effort or just rely on the pedals. Before and after each session, the participants took fMRI brain scans and memory working tests.
Participants whose cognition and functional brain connectivity greatly improved after moderate exercise also enjoyed significant long-term brain boosts.
Her team’s findings could mean that short-term brain changes after a single workout study can estimate the effects of long-term training.
Right now, though, Dr. Voss is looking into replicating the study, this time with more participants and a longer time period (6 months). “Think about how physical activity may help your cognition today and see what works,” said Dr. Voss. “Day-by-day, the benefits of physical activity can add up.”
A brain boost for everyone
Meanwhile, Dr. Michelle Carlson of Johns Hopkins University has developed ways to allow socioeconomically disadvantaged communities to benefit from these findings as well.
Dr. Carlson spearheaded the Experience Corps Program, a weekly volunteering initiative for older adults willing to act as mentors to elementary school children. According to Dr. Carlson, the older adults who engaged in the program exhibited improved memory and cognitive functions, possibly due to the physical activity involved in the volunteering program.
In addition, Dr. Carlson’s team developed a 3D simulation for cognitive and mobility enhancement. The team tested the game on 14 participants over the course of five weeks, and found a steady improvement in their overall performance. Dr. Carlson will also be presenting these findings at the CNS meeting.
“We need to address socioeconomic barriers like cost and accessibility to motivate older adults to regularly engage in healthful behaviors,” said Dr. Carlson.
“And many people don’t appreciate the power of physical activity for our brains.”
Cover photo: Rawpixel.com
Author: Mikael Angelo Francisco
Bitten by the science writing bug, Mikael has years of writing and editorial experience under his belt. As the editor-in-chief of FlipScience, Mikael has sworn to help make science more fun and interesting for geeky readers and casual audiences alike.