New Study Suggests Regular Cardio Can Improve Some Types Of Brain Function

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Have you already caved on that New Year’s resolution to get more exercise? Tossed that fancy wearable watch into the drawer because your daily fail count is mocking you and invading your privacy to boot?

Well, it’s never too late to rethink your relationship with the gym, and some interesting new evidence suggests that cardiovascular exercise is not just good for your body, but good for your brain as well.

We’ve long known that there are measurable benefits to getting moderate cardiovascular exercise. Everyone’s body is different and your mileage may vary, but even those not concerned about weight might be intrigued to know that getting your heart rate up can help your brain. And this is the case at any age.

Researchers from the Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York published a paper this week titled “Effect of aerobic exercise on cognition in younger adults: A randomized clinical trial” in the latest online issue of the journal Neurology. While it might not sound like a page-turner, it’s an interesting step forward in looking for ways to reduce some types of cognitive decline and improve function in young people as well.

If we’ve learned anything these last few years, it’s that people will go to great lengths to find technological solutions to things like fitness and brain health. We’ll freeze our fat, hook electrodes up to our brains, and ingest any manner of pill to find a quick fix. But it looks like some good old-fashioned aerobic exercise is the cheapest, easiest, and most effective way to get it done. Damn.

The Columbia researchers gathered preliminary data from 132 adults (and full data from the 94 who completed it) between the ages of 20 and 67. All of the subjects had a “below median aerobic capacity” to start with and were randomly assigned to one of two groups for the 6-month study.

Members of both groups performed some sort of fitness training at their local YMCA 4 times a week. One group did cardio and subjects were allowed to choose any form they liked as long as they reached their target heart rates, which were measured with a heart rate monitor and then downloaded for analysis into a computer. For weeks 1 and 2, they trained at 55%–65% of their maximum heart rate. In weeks 3 and 4, they increased the intensity to 65%–75%, and in weeks 5–26, they trained at 75% of their maximum heart rate.

The control group did stretching and core-strengthening exercises and worked all upper body and lower body muscle groups along with their abdominals, back, and pelvic muscles. It sounds like they got quite a workout as well, but theirs was not focused on cardio.

Both groups’ workouts consisted of 10–15 minutes of warm-up/cool down and 30–40 minutes of full-fledged exercise.

Participants were tested at 12 and 24 weeks for cognitive skills such as episodic memory (that is, the ability to recall past personal experiences), attention, language, processing speed, and executive function. Executive function encompasses a range of skills that allow us to organize and regulate our abilities to respond to our environments – it helps with everything from resisting temptation to managing your emotions and reactions to things around us.

Damage to the executive system of the brain can lead to difficulty organizing, planning, and getting started on tasks, the inability to multitask, trouble planning, mood swings, and even a loss of interest in activities.

While the study’s small sample size doesn’t suggest that exercise can be used in treatment for executive function disorders like OCD, depression, ADHD, or addiction, it might provide some food for thought for future studies.

So, here’s the good news: it looks like aerobic exercise can improve these executive functions in all age groups after 24 weeks of cardio, and the effect is even more pronounced in older people. (However, the benefits did not extend to those with symptoms of dementia – the research was done on those who did not have any signs of dementia.)

The researchers were careful to note that neither of the groups saw improved cognitive function in processing speed, language, attention, or episodic memory, though they suggested some studies have shown improvement in these areas in those over 55, and larger studies may be able to detect improvement in younger adults. But that’s a study for another time.

So why do we care? Well, previous studies have found that aerobic exercise improves executive functions in adults over 55, but prior research on young adults was inconclusive due to small samples and unreliable methods. This new research shows that cardiovascular exercise can improve this specific type of brain function in people as young as 20.

Dr. Yaakov Stern, chief of cognitive neuroscience in the Department of Neurology and a faculty member in the Taub Institute, reported that

Executive function usually peaks around age 30, and I think that aerobic exercise is good at rescuing lost function, as opposed to increasing performance in those without a decline.

So, no, you’re not going to supercharge your brain if it’s already functioning at its peak, but you can stave off some degeneration and even potentially gain back lost function with some simple cardiovascular exercise.

Brain scans showed that the cardio group even had increased cortical thickness in the left caudal middle frontal cortex after 24 weeks. While it did not correlate directly with an improvement in any cognitive domain studied, more research will certainly be done to gauge the effects. Science moves slowly and good science doesn’t overstate its claims, so we’ll have to wait for more careful studies to get the full picture on how cardiovascular exercise improves different measures of brain health in different age groups. But for now, it seems like a good bet that lacing up those running shoes is a good idea.

As a final note, the researchers said that “These findings have strong public health implications and allow the recommendation of a feasible, flexible intervention for cognitive and brain health for adults of all ages.”

Granted, this study is a bit disappointing to those of us whose workouts are composed mostly of yoga and strength training, since the non-cardio group did not show the same effects, but plenty of research has shown that those types of exercise have their own benefits.

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