- Aerobic activity appears to increase a range of mental skills in young adults
- It is not yet known if this also applies to non-aerobic exercise like strength training
- One explanation may be the fact that that exercise activates dopamine receptors in the brain
A few minutes of moderate- to high-intensity aerobic activity – like running or biking – can boost young adults' memory and concentration for up to two hours, a new research review shows.
That's the takeaway from 13 studies published between 2009 and 2019. All looked at the short-term impact of bicycling, walking and/or running on the mental health of 18- to 35-year-olds.
"We found that two minutes to one hour of aerobic exercise at moderate to high intensity improves the learning ability and storage in memory for up to two hours in young adults," said Dr Peter Blomstrand, who led the research review. He works with the department of clinical physiology at County Hospital Ryhov in Jönköping, Sweden.
Focus on aerobic activity
The workouts and five-minute recovery periods were linked to an improved ability to plan and solve problems, better concentration and stronger verbal skills. The gains lasted anywhere from 30 to 120 minutes.
Aerobic activity also appeared to boost young adults' ability to learn and remember new things ("encoding"), to stimulate long-term storage of new memories ("consolidation") and to improve the ability to access already stored memories ("retrieval").
Blomstrand stressed, however, that he focused only on aerobic activity. So the jury is still out as to whether non-aerobic strength training might have a similar benefit. Nor is it clear that bicycling, walking and running are any better at strengthening mental skills ("cognition") than other aerobics, such as swimming.
He said it is "very likely" that the results also apply to children and middle-aged and older adults.
"We know that regular aerobic exercise makes children smarter, improves their results on tests of memory and cognitive function, and regular exercise in elderly counteracts dementia," Blomstrand said. Taken together, the research suggests that, at any age, "exercise improves cognition, learning and mental health. It makes us happier and more focused."
Quality nutrition important
That thought was seconded by Lona Sandon, director of the Master Clinical Nutrition Coordinated Program at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. She lauded the review for underscoring "that we are built to move, not sit on our tails".
Sandon said, "It is pretty clear that there is strong agreement on the benefits of exercise for brain function regardless of age. We know exercise is good for us for a number of reasons. And we also know kids perform better in school when they get time to exercise and have a good meal. The question is: Why do we still seem to ignore it?"
She suggested people regard the mental health benefits of both exercise and good nutrition as peas of a pod.
"Quality nutrition is important along with the exercise," Sandon said, with hunger or nutritional deficiencies in carbohydrates and iron leading to diminished mental acuity. "From a diet perspective, there is plenty of research to support the benefits of being well-fed and academic performance."
As to what's specifically driving the aerobic exercise-mental health connection, Blomstrand noted that several explanations have been proposed.
More research needed
On the one hand, he said, aerobic activity may trigger neurochemical and electrophysiological changes – like faster synapse connections – that improve brain function. "We know, for example, that dopamine receptors are activated during exercise," Blomstrand said.
"We need more research to fully understand the hows and whys" of the link between physical activity and improved attention, concentration and learning, he added.
The report by Blomstrand and co-author Jan Engvall of Linköping University was published online recently in the journal Translational Sports Medicine.
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