A few minutes of vigorous activity can help your brain, a study finds

A few minutes of vigorous activity can help your brain, a study finds

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Editor’s note: Seek advice from a healthcare provider before starting an exercise program.


What if you could look at all the things you do on a daily basis—walking from room to room, preparing a presentation at your desk, running up and down the stairs to deliver folded laundry, or jogging around the block—and know which ones will help you best or hurt your brain?

A new study attempted to answer this question by attaching activity monitors to the hips of nearly 4,500 people in the UK and tracking their 24-hour movements over seven days. The researchers then examined how the participants’ behavior affected their short-term memory, problem-solving and processing skills.

Here’s the good news: People who spend “even a little time in more vigorous activities — as little as 6 to 9 minutes — compared to sitting, sleeping, or gentle activities have higher cognitive outcomes,” said study author John Mitchell, M.D. Research Council Doctoral Fellow at the Institute of Sport, Exercise and Health, University College London, in email.

Moderate physical activity is usually defined as brisk walking or cycling or running up and down stairs. Vigorous movements, such as aerobic dancing, jogging, running, swimming, and cycling up a hill, will get your heart rate and breathing up.

learning, published Monday in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Healthfound that doing just under 10 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise each day improved study participants’ working memory, but had the greatest impact on executive processes such as planning and organization.

The cognitive improvement was modest, but as additional time was spent doing more vigorous exercise, the benefits grew, Mitchell said.

“Given that we don’t monitor participants’ cognitive abilities over many years, it could simply be that people who exercise more tend to have higher cognitive abilities on average,” he said. “However, yes, it can also mean that even minimal changes in our daily lives can have consequences for our cognition.”

Stephen Malin, an associate professor in the department of kinesiology and health at Rutgers University in New Jersey, told CNN that the study provides new insight into how activity interacts with sedentary behavior as well as sleep.

“Understanding the interaction between sleep and different physical activities is often not explored,” said Malin, who was not involved in the new study.

Although the study had some limitations, including a lack of knowledge about the participants’ health, the findings illustrate how “accumulating movement patterns over a day to a week to a month is just as, if not more, important than simply getting outside for one exercise session,” he said.

There was bad news, too: spending more time sleeping, sitting, or engaging in only light movement has been linked to negative effects on the brain. The study found that cognitive performance declined by 1% to 2% after replacing an equivalent portion of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity with eight minutes of sedentary lifestyle, six minutes of light intensity, or seven minutes of sleep.

“In most cases, we’ve shown that just 7 to 10 minutes less MVPA (moderate to vigorous physical activity) is harmful,” Mitchell said.

This change is only an association, not cause and effect, because of the study’s observational methods, Mitchell emphasized.

In addition, the sleep study findings cannot be taken at face value, he said. Good quality sleep is critical for the brain to function at peak efficiency.

“The evidence for the importance of sleep for cognitive performance is strong,” Mitchell said, “however, there are two major caveats. First, excessive sleep may be associated with poorer cognitive outcomes.

“Second, sleep quality may be even more important than sleep duration. Our accelerometer devices can estimate how long people slept, but they can’t tell us how well they slept.

Further studies are needed to verify these findings and to understand the role of each type of activity. Still, Mitchell said, the study “highlights how even very modest differences in people’s daily movement — less than 10 minutes — are associated with quite real changes in our cognitive health.”

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