Add one more benefit to the mountain of good things exercise can convey upon your life.
A new study out of Columbia University shows that including aerobic exercise training in your weekly routine can even improve how you think, and at almost any age.
There have been quite a few studies on how exercise benefits the brain, but the majority of them have focused on the elderly. The new research from Columbia's Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons included 132 adults from age 20 to 67. It found that making a habit of getting your heart rate up and breaking a sweat increases executive function in the brain, which includes cognitive processes that help you reason, plan, organize, and solve problems.
This effect was stronger the older a participant was, and all study participants had below median aerobic capacity. In other words, people who are a little older or more out of shape are probably more likely to see benefits from added exercise compared with younger people who are already relatively fit.
"As people age, there can be a decline in thinking skills, however our study shows that getting regular exercise may help slow or even prevent such decline," said Yaakov Stern, PhD, the college's chief of cognitive neuroscience, who led the study. "We found that all participants who exercised not only showed improvements in executive function but also increased the thickness in an area of the outer layer of their brain."
The study was published this week in the journal Neurology.
The participants were asked to exercise four times a week at a YMCA at a time of their choosing and were allowed to select from a handful of aerobic activities like running on a treadmill or using an elliptical machine. Their thinking skills were evaluated at the start, midpoint, and end of the study period.
Stern says after six months of regular aerobic training, "people who exercised were testing as if they were about 10 years younger at age 40 and about 20 years younger at age 60."
One limitation of the study is that it involved a relatively small number of participants. However, the researchers say the fact that positive results were seen even when subjects were allowed the flexibility to exercise on their own schedule is encouraging. Stern says the key takeaway of the research is clear:
"Our research confirms that exercise can be beneficial to adults of any age."