Regular exercise improves brain activity in young adults, says a new study. The conclusion runs counter to the popular belief that because they are in their prime and the peak of their cognitive ability, young adult brains do not benefit from exercise in the same way as older brains.
The new study, published in the journal Psychophysiology, comes from the University of Otago in New Zealand, where lead investigator Dr. Liana Machado is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology.
There is already a lot of evidence that aerobic exercise improves brain function in older adults, but how it affects young adults is somewhat unclear.
The new study found that young women who exercised regularly had higher oxygen availability in the frontal lobe of the brain and performed best on difficult cognitive tasks compared to counterparts who exercised less.
Oxygen availability is already known to be important in cognitive functioning, which among other things covers thinking, memory, learning, reasoning, intelligence, attention, visual and motor skills and language.
Dr. Machado says she got the idea to do the study from noticing over the years how students at the university seemed to be less and less fit.
“I wondered whether we might find significant relationships between exercise levels, oxygen availability in the brain and cognition in the young adults, but no studies had considered this in healthy young adults,” she adds.
For their study, the team enrolled 52 healthy female university students aged 18-30 and asked them to complete a range of computer-based cognitive tests while they measured their oxygen availability in the frontal lobe of their brain. The researchers also asked them questions about how often they exercised.
The researchers used near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) to measure the participants’ brain oxygen supply as they performed the computer tests. When a specific area of the brain is active, there is a rapid change in the local blood supply that NIRS detects by measuring changes in hemoglobin concentration.
Dr. Machado says their “surprising” findings show that both blood supply to the brain and cognitive function seem to improve when young adults exercise regularly, and notes:
“This provides compelling evidence that regular exercise, at least 5 days per week, is a way to sharpen our cognitive ability as young adults – challenging the assumption that living a sedentary lifestyle leads to problems only later in life.”
Dr. Machado says the exercise could be brisk walking or more vigorous exercise. And you don’t have to do it in one go, “a few 10-minute bouts of exercise, rather than one single block of exercise,” is as beneficial, she adds.
Meanwhile, American experts are concerned that lack of exercise is affecting the cognitive development of children. In the US, and many other countries, physical activity among children has declined markedly in the last 30 years.
In December 2014, Medical News Today learned how 20 researchers discussed what parents, teachers and lawmakers need to know about physical activity, brain health, cognition and scholastic achievement in American children.
In a series of papers in Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, the experts say we need to realize that while a growing emphasis on academic performance has reduced physical activity in schools, a decrease in physical activity is actually linked to reduced academic performance.