Exercise is good for your brain

Lesley Dobson / 30 July 2015

Being active is good for your body – it’s a message we hear often. But did you know that increasing your fitness can give your brain power a boost too?



This is the news from a six-month trial carried out by a team at the University of Kansas. The aim of the trial was to try to find  out how much exercise you need to do to improve your brain’s abilities. (No one in the trial showed signs of cognitive problems at  the start of the trial.)The participants were all healthy adults, 65 and older, who did little exercise, and showed no signs of cognitive problems.  They  were divided into four groups. 

Aerobic exercise for health benefits

The trial group didn’t have any change to their normal routine. The first group did 75 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic  exercise, partially supervised. The second group had the same, but for 150 minutes a week, while for the third group this was  extended to 225 minutes a week. The exercise programme lasted for 26 weeks, with all participants starting with the target of doing  60 minutes of exercise in the first week, and increasing by about 21 minutes a week until they reached their goal times. The study showed that all the groups that exercised had health benefits. The researchers also found that each participant’s cognitive  abilities (the brain’s ability to think, remember, and learn), improved. 

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Better visuospacial processing

The groups that exercised more, improved more. Among the changes were an increase in attention levels and ability to focus, and  better visuospacial processing. This is when you look at objects and can judge where they are and their distance from each other.  “Basically, the more exercise you did, the more benefit to the brain you saw,” said study leader Jeffrey Burns, M.D., professor of  neurology and co-director of the Kansas University Alzheimer’s Disease Center.  It also found generally that the more exercise the participants did,the more their cardiorespiratory (heart and lung) fitness  increased.  The results suggest that working on your cardiorespiratory fitness may be an important way of improving your ability to  pay attention, and your ability in visuospacial processing, mentioned above.

But what kind of exercise should we be doing? ““Being physically active is important for our physical and mental health,” explains Lisa Young, Physical Activity Specialist for the British Heart Foundation. “Moderate intensity activities like walking, cycling and dancing, also known as aerobic activities, which make you feel warmer, breath harder, and make your heart beat faster than normal, can help improve your health.”

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Start slowly and build up 

Don’t be tempted to plunge straight into exercise if you aren’t used to doing it. “Start slowly, and build up gradually,” says Lisa  Young. “It does depend on how active you’ve been in recent years, but for most people, trying to achieve 150 minutes of physical activity a  week can be quite challenging.”“We really encourage people to be active every day. Every 10 minutes counts, so you could try to build in 10 minutes chunks of activity into your day. Once you’ve got started, try to add in more sessions so that you can build up to 150 minutes a week.
“We would also recommend that on top of your 150 minutes a week of aerobic activity, that you do some strength activity at least  twice a week,” says Lisa Young. “Strength activities include walking up and down the stairs, carrying your groceries in from the car, and using light weights, or resistance bands, to help strengthen your muscles.” So the message is, exercise is good for you, and more exercise is better.

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