Just a single exercise workout has positive effects on learning and memory in young adults, according to a recent review of published studies.
The review, which is published in Translational Sports Medicine, included 13 relevant studies. The types of exercise that were studied involved walking, running, and bicycling in individuals between 18 to 35 years of age.
Investigators found that aerobic exercise for two minutes to one hour at moderate to high intensity improved attention, concentration, and learning and memory functions for up to 2 hours. They noted that the results may have important education-related implications.
“Exercise makes you smart,” said co-author Peter Blomstrand, MD, Ph.D., of County Hospital Ryhov and Jönköping University, in Sweden.
Dr. Scott McGinnis, an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School said exercise can also boost memory and thinking indirectly by improving mood and sleep, and by reducing stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.
Is one exercise better than another in terms of brain health? We don’t know the answer to this question, because almost all of the research so far have looked at walking. “But it’s likely that other forms of aerobic exercise that get your heart pumping might yield similar benefits,” McGinnis explained.
A study 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 memorizing new skills and movement patterns.
Dr McGinnis recommends establishing exercise as a habit, almost like taking a prescription medication. And since several studies have shown that it takes about six months to start reaping the cognitive benefits of exercise, he reminds you to be patient as you look for the first results — and to then continue exercising for life.
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.