Studies show that midday workouts improve job performance and time management for workers. Emily Blum works her abdominals and leg flexibility during Pilates class at Spring Pilates, June 14, 2008, in Chicago. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Some studies suggest that with aerobic exercise, the rate of birth for new brain cells can be maintained into old age. Functional MRI images light up pea-sized regions in the human brain that specialize in recognizing faces more than other objects. Usually the "fusiform face area'' on the right side is active, but sometimes its left-side twin is called upon.
You’re a smart cookie when it comes to your health, so you know that regular exercise is one of the best ways to cut your risk of disease, boost your immune system, and maintain a trim body. But flat abs, bigger biceps, and fewer colds are just the beginning. Mounting research suggests that regular sweat sessions can help keep your brain fit, too.
Science shows us that aerobic activity can improve mental processes such as planning, multitasking, focusing without getting distracted, and making and remembering associations (e.g., banking away the name and face of a new acquaintance or remembering where you left your keys), says Michelle Voss, PhD, a researcher in the department of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“So far, there is the most support for light aerobic exercise, like walking three times a week for 45 minutes to an hour,” says Voss, adding that according to research, resistance training two times a week also may enhance brain function.
Voss and her colleagues recently examined 111 human and animal studies on the long-term cognitive benefits of cardio and strength-training workouts. In their review article, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, the researchers conclude that exercise helps us maintain brain and cognitive health throughout life. Animal studies suggest that aerobic exercise increases levels of brain chemicals that protect nerve cells from damage as well as boost the function of mitochondria — the source of energy within cells — giving your noggin more power to create energy to fuel brain activity, says Voss.
The researchers note that more studies are needed in order to understand how specific aspects of exercise influence brain physiology and function in humans.
Discover tangible brain-boosting perks you can reap from regular exercise.
Be more productive
If your mind is wandering to anything but the task in front of you, leaving your workplace for a workout may be just the mental break your mind needs. An International Journal of Workplace Health Management study concluded that engaging in midday exercise boosts overall job performance by 15 percent. Researchers asked 210 employees who worked at a university, life insurance firm, or computer company to complete questionnaires about their job performance and mood on the days they exercised and on the days they did not. Study participants did anything from taking a yoga class to playing a game of pickup basketball for 30 to 60 minutes.
Of those participants, 72 percent reported being able to better manage their time on exercise days compared with nonexercise days.
Stay focused in school
Similar findings are evidenced in elementary schools. A University of Illinois study published in the journal Neuroscience suggests that physical education classes, recess, and after-school sports improve students’ abilities to pay attention.
Research even suggests that exercise may be helpful in alleviating symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a cognitive disorder classified by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. Physical activity has been shown to boost levels of dopamine, a brain chemical that affects learning and attention and one that is in short supply in individuals with ADHD.
Protect brain cells
Certain cognitive skills — your ability to make rapid comparisons, for example — get a little rusty later in life, and some studies suggest that this process can begin as early as the late 20s in healthy adults. “The human brain is always creating new brain cells, but this process slows down with age,” says Voss. “However, with aerobic exercise the rate of the birth of new brain cells can be maintained into old age,” she says.
In a 6-month Journal of Gerontology study 59 healthy but sedentary adults ages 60 to 79 exercised for 1 hour 3 times a week, performing either an aerobic workout or a series of toning and stretching exercises. Study participants in the cardio group demonstrated growth in their brains’ gray and white matter, areas of the brain that are often reported to show substantial age-related deterioration.
Ward off dementia
Not only can regular workouts help ward off routine signs of aging, but also protect against more serious losses of cognitive ability, like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, a research review published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings examined 130 studies on exercise and late-in-life cognitive decline and linked aerobic activity to lower incidences of dementia.
Squeezing in 30 minutes of cardio three or more times a week can lower dementia risk by 30 to 40 percent, according to a study published in Annals of Internal Medicine. Researchers followed 1,740 adults ages 65 and older who showed no signs of dementia and evaluated the participants’ health every 2 years. At the conclusion of the 6-year study, 1,185 participants were found to be dementia-free, 77 percent of whom reported exercising at least three times a week.