There are plenty of good reasons to be physically active. Big ones include reducing the odds of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Maybe you want to lose weight, lower your blood pressure, prevent depression, or just look better. Now, a brand new study has shown that exercise over time boosts brain health, too.
Evidence supporting the new study is now being presented in San Francisco at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society. The research discovered that “brain changes that occur after a single workout are predictive of what happens with sustained physical training over time,” according to a press release. This means that committing to a regular exercise routine could improve your cognitive functioning now and in the future.
“There is a strong and direct link between physical activity and how your brain works,” Wendy Suzuki of New York University, who is chairing a symposium on the topic at CNS, said in the press release. She added that while the focus of exercise has long been on improving the body, people often neglect to take in account “all the brain systems they are improving and enhancing every time they work out.”
The study tracked participants’ brain activity using functional MRI imaging and memory tests after single sessions of light and moderate exercise and again after 12 weeks of regular fitness activities. The best news is the study found that in addition to long-term benefits, exercise also provides immediate benefits for the brain, which means you don’t have to wait a long time to feel the effects of a single workout.
“The researchers found that those who saw the biggest improvements in cognition and functional brain connectivity after single sessions of moderate intensity physical activity also showed the biggest long-term gains in cognition and connectivity,” the announcement stated.
Other studies have expressed that everything from walking to improve long-term brain health to dance classes like Zumba to reduce anxiety. Whether it’s a brisk walk around the block after work or a trip to the gym, basically anything that gets you moving and generally active is good for your brain. Aside from reliving symptoms of anxiety and depression, keeping your cognitive skills sharp is a good reason to take the stairs or do some stretching on your lunch break or during your down time.
“In people who are depressed, neuroscientists have noticed that the hippocampus in the brain — the region that helps regulate mood — is smaller,” Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, told Harvard Health. “Exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression.”
While the study found that more research is necessary to identify specific exercise that best benefit the brain health of people at every age, this new research suggests that even light exercise has brain-boosting benefits and moderate-intensity exercise has significant long-term cognitive perks.
Additionally, another study that was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that tai chi showed the potential to enhance cognitive function in older adults, especially in the realm of executive function, which manages cognitive processes such as planning, working memory, attention, problem solving, and verbal reasoning. That may be because tai chi, a martial art that involves slow, focused movements, requires learning and memorising new skills and movement patterns.
Professionals on the subject recommend establishing exercise as a habit, almost like taking a prescription medication. Aim for a goal of exercising at a moderate intensity — such as brisk walking — for 150 minutes per week. Start with a few minutes a day, and increase the amount by five or 10 minutes every week until you reach your goal.