We recently had a Facebook follower reach out with a great question we thought we’d address:
“I find that I learn better (read and retain more) and I perform better at work with consistent exercise. Ironically, my professional life has accelerated by devoting 1-2 hours in the gym and I FULLY believe it has to do with benefits of exercise. Am I crazy or is there a link?”
A decent amount of research has been done to investigate this precise question. In this article, we’ll discuss the most current findings regarding exercise and cognition.
Childhood- This is a very plastic period of life! What I mean by this is that everything is changing. We’re growing, learning and developing at a very rapid pace. So how does exercise affect these processes? More and more research is being conducted that links childhood inactivity, and subsequent decreased aerobic fitness, with poor academic performance. Additionally, a recent meta-analysis (which examines all the relevant literature on a given topic) found an overall positive effect of physical activity on creativity, concentration, perception, academic achievement and math and verbal test scores (to name a few:)). Moreover, some research is now being done using neuroimaging techniques, and preliminary data suggest that aerobic fitness is associated with positive brain structure and function. Bottom line: dedicating more time in schools (and in general) to physical activity in children is a REALLY good idea.
Young Adulthood- Following the period of rapid change and development, we enter a relatively stable period of life (i.e., young adulthood). During this time frame, our cognition reaches its peak (if you’re past this time period in your life-don’t fret! Read on to see the exciting benefits of exercise in older adulthood!). Because of the relatively high and stable cognition during this time, relatively few studies have been done during this period of life. However, recent neuroimaging studies do seem to support the relationship between aerobic fitness and brain function in this age group as well.
Interestingly, the period of older adulthood mirrors the childhood period in some ways. It’s a rather variable time when lifestyle factors play a huge role in brain structure and function. Aerobic fitness is linked to the prevention of nearly all types of dementia. Additionally, physical activity is beneficial for many executive functions, including planning, inhibition and multi-tasking. Different than the predominantly cross-sectional research conducted in children, longitudinal (training) studies have been conducted in older adults. Overwhelmingly, these training studies suggest that participation in regular aerobic exercise results in improved cognition in healthy adults, as well as in those with early signs of Alzheimer’s during which cognition was mildly impaired. Bottom line: it’s NEVER too late to begin a regular aerobic exercise plan.
The HOW: It’s difficult (and rather impossible in most cases) to test the mechanisms of these improvements in humans. This is where animal research has played an important role. Specifically, neurogenesis (creation of new neurons, or brain cells) and angiogenesis (creation of new blood vessels) have been observed in mouse models of aging and exercise. Thus, evidence suggests that physical activity may actually stimulate the making of new brain cells and blood vessels that provide nutrients to them.
Now, how about resistance training? Well, very few studies have been conducted using this exercise modality, so there is still much to be learned about this relationship. In general, however, results seem to be equivocal. So, stay tuned for future studies examining resistance training. IN the meantime, resistance train for all the other benefits.
In conclusion, while there is certainly still MUCH to be learned regarding the cellular and molecular mechanisms behind this relationship, the bottom line is, we can safely add ‘improved brain function’ to the ever-growing list of benefits of aerobic exercise. And remember, it’s never too late to start!
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