According to new research, consistent exercise also helps strengthen the brain. These findings, collected by a team led by Michelle Voss of the University of Iowa, are being presented this week at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS) in San Francisco, and show that even after a single workout, the brain shows positive change.
“There is a strong and direct link between physical activity and how your brain works,” said Wendy Suzuki of New York University, a chair of a CNS symposium on the topic. “People still do not link physical health to brain and cognitive health; they think about fitting into a bikini or losing that last pound, not about all the brain systems they are improving and enhancing every time they work out.”
Voss and her team found that physical exercise gives way to immediate cognitive effects, and prolonged physical training can cause positive long-term cognitive shifts, as well.
To come to this conclusion, Voss and her colleagues gave each participant in their study a fMRI brain scan and memory tests before subjecting them to light and moderate exercise. They then did the same before and after the participants fulfilled a 12-week training program. The team found that those who experienced the largest improvement in cognition and functional brain connectivity after their first single exercise session also showed the most long-term cognition and connectivity gains after the 12-week program.
“Think about how physical activity may help your cognition today and see what works,” Voss said. “Day-by-day, the benefits of physical activity can add up.”
Currently, Michelle Carlson of Johns Hopkins University is working to instill this idea in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities via a program called Experience Corps Program. Through Experience Corps, physical activity is embedded into weekly volunteering opportunities for older adults at elementary schools.
“We need to address socioeconomic barriers like cost and accessibility to motivate older adults to regularly engage in healthful behaviors,” Carlson said. “And many people don’t appreciate the power of physical activity for our brains.”
Carlson added that studies from the Experience Corps Program have shown that exercise from the volunteering experience, such as regular walking, improved memory and other cognitive functions. “These and related findings in my lab and others have contributed to our understanding that targeting low-intensity lifestyle activity is increasingly being recognized as important and scalable intervention to promote any physical activity,” Carlson said.
These findings can aid scientists in the future target which exercises are most beneficial, and to what demographic. Hopefully, future neuroimaging technologies will give evidence and insight into what is going on inside the brain when we exercise.