The physical and psychological benefits of exercising regularly are well-documented. But what about the impact on the brain: Can exercise improve cognitive function?
Yes, it can, according to a new neurological study published by scientists from the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Tsukuba in Japan. Summarizing the key findings of their research, Gretchen Reynolds of The New York Times reports that even a slow, 10-minute stroll in the park, for example, can boost your memory.
The scientists invited 36 college students into their lab where they were instructed to sit quietly on a stationary bike for 10 minutes. The students were also asked to pedal the bike lightly, barely enough to get their heartbeat up to 30 percent of its maximum rate.
After this incredibly light exercise, the students were then given a computerized test which flashed images of objects like trees, and asked then to recall whether it was new or a previously shown object.
They then asked the students to complete the computerized test while their brains were being scanned by an M.R.I. machine to see how they responded.
The effects of this undemanding exercise were clear, Reynolds reports: The students could recall images more accurately after they had pedaled the bike. Surprisingly, their ability to correctly recall images even improved as the images became more alike. They got smarter even as the test got harder, in other words.
The M.R.I. scans yielded another unexpected result: While taking the memory test, portions of each student's hippocampus lit up at the same time as the parts of the brain associated with learning, suggesting a stronger connection between the two parts after completing the exercise. And, as these different parts of the brain exhibited closer coordination, students performed better on the memory test.
Whereas previous studies examined the effect of moderate or vigorous exercise, such as jogging or brisk walking, and for weeks or months at a time, this new research demonstrates the potentially positive impact on brain function of even the lightest forms of exercise.
"These findings represent a mechanism by which mild exercise, on par with yoga and tai chi, may improve memory," say the researchers.