Exercising regularly as a kid can result in improved cognitive functioning later in life, according to a study published in the journal Psychological Medicine.

A group of researchers at King’s College London found that intensive lifelong exercise can significantly improve people’s brain function at the age of 50.

It is already well known that exercise can work wonders for clearing the mind, improving blood circulation, and also has significant effects on memory and brain-specific mechanisms.

The researchers believe that their findings highlight the need for people to make long-term lifestyle changes and incorporate exercise into their lives as a way of improving cognitive well-being.

Dr Alex Dregan, Lecturer in Translational Epidemiology and Public Health at King’s College London, said:

“As exercise represents a key component of lifestyle interventions to prevent cognitive decline, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, public health interventions to promote lifelong exercise have the potential to reduce the personal and social burden associated with these conditions in late adult years.”

The study is one of the first of its kind to assess the long term cognitive effects lifelong exercising can have on the brain.

'TAI-CHI' exercises performed early mornings in Malacca(25-10-07 Thursday)
Lifelong exercise helps protect your memory and thinking skills (cognitive functioning)

The researchers gathered data on more than 9,000 people about the amount of exercise they did from the ages of 11 to 50. The data was collected by interviewing them when they were 11,16, 33, 42, 46 and 50 years old.

Participants were asked to perform cognitive tasks that assessed their memory and executive functioning. The memory task involved asking them to learn ten unrelated words, and the executive functioning test involved naming as many animals as they could in under a minute.

They found that those who exercised regularly as a child and adult – at least once per week – performed better in the tests at the age of 50 than those who didn’t.

As a major public health concern, government officials suggest that in order to preserve cognitive function in later years, adults aged 19-64 should do at least 150 minutes of exercise per week.

The study also indicates that even low levels of exercise can have a positive effect on cognitive functioning – albeit less than intensive exercise.

Dr Dregan said:

“It’s widely acknowledged that a healthy body equals a healthy mind. However, not everyone is willing or able to take part in the recommended 150 minutes of physical activity per week. For these people any level of physical activity may benefit their cognitive well-being in the long-term and this is something that needs to be explored further.

Setting lower exercise targets at the beginning and gradually increasing their frequency and intensity could be a more effective method for improving levels of exercise within the wider population.”

They found that the greatest benefits came from doing intensive exercise.

In a separate study, researchers from the US Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois and the University of Pittsburgh also found that exercise is able to keep the brain from deteriorating. They reported their findings in the British Journal of Sports Medicine

Dr Dregan concluded: ‘It appears that intensive exercise may offer benefits for brain functioning in later life over and above those resulting from regular yet less intense exercise. Clinical trials are required to further explore the benefits of exercise for cognitive well-being among older adults, whilst examining the effects of exercise with varying levels of frequency and intensity.”

Exercise has several benefits which directly or indirectly help cognitive performance, especially if maintained over the long term, but even in the short-term, the benefits are evident:

  • We know that exercise is key to good sleep, and that good sleep helps our brain work better.

    A survey carried out by the National Sleep Foundation found that light, moderate and vigorous exercisers reported having a good night’s sleep almost every night compared to non-exercisers (67% versus 39%).

  • We know that excessive long-term mental stress has a detrimental effect on cognitive performance. A team of investigators from Helsinki, Finland, reported that regular exercise is key in helping children cope with stress.

    They reported their findings in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. The authors added that physical activity in kids is linked to a better stress hormone response.

  • Being physically active and fit during middle age protects against dementia later on. Laura F. DeFina, MD, of The Cooper Institute in Dallas, Texas, USA, and team reported in Annals of Internal Medicine that “Higher midlife fitness levels seem to be associated with lower hazards of developing all-cause dementia later in life. The magnitude and direction of the association were similar with or without previous stroke, suggesting that higher fitness levels earlier in life may lower risk for dementia later in life, independent of cerebrovascular disease.”
  • A brief surge of condensed exercise enhances the compression of memories in both mentally healthy seniors as well as those with slight cognitive impairment, a team of scientists from UC Irvine’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory found.

    Volunteers were asked to look at pleasing pictures of nature and animals. Half of them then rode a stationary bicycle for six minutes at 70% of their maximum capacity. An hour later they took a surprise test which involved having to remember information on the images they had looked at earlier. Those who had been on the bike for six minutes performed better than the participants who had not exercised.

  • Researchers from the University of Edinburgh reported in the journal Neurology that exercise is better at protecting the aging brain than mental or leisure activity.

    After periodically assessing volunteers, all of them in their 70s, they reported less brain shrinkage and fewer signs of cognitive decline among the exercisers. The assessments included brain scans.

Written by Joseph Nordqvist