Editor’s Note: Seek advice from a health care professional before starting an exercise program.
What if you could look at all the things you do every day – walking from room to room, preparing a presentation at your desk, running up and down stairs to deliver folded laundry, or jogging around the block – and know which ones are best help or hurt your brain?
A new study sought to answer that question by strapping activity monitors to the thighs of nearly 4,500 people in the UK and tracking their 24-hour movements over seven days. Researchers then examined how participants’ behavior affected their short-term memory, problem-solving and processing skills.
Here’s the good news: People who “spent even small amounts of time to more vigorous activities — just 6 to 9 minutes — compared to sitting, sleeping, or quiet activities had higher cognition scores,” said study author John Mitchell, a Medical Research Doctorate student of the Council at University College London’s Institute of Sport, Exercise and Health, in an email.
Moderate physical activity is usually defined as brisk walking or cycling or running up and down stairs. Vigorous movements, such as aerobics dancing, jogging, running, swimming and cycling up a hill, will stimulate your heart rate and breathing.
The study, published Monday in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, found that doing just under 10 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise every day improved the working memory of study participants, but had the greatest impact on executive processes such as planning and organization.
The cognitive improvement was modest, but as more time was spent on the more energetic workout, the benefits increased, Mitchell said.
“Since we don’t track participants’ cognition over many years, it may simply be that the individuals who exercise more have higher cognition on average,” he said. “But yes, it could also mean that even minimal changes in our daily lives could have downstream consequences for our cognition.”
Steven Malin, an associate professor in the department of kinesiology and health at Rutgers University in New Jersey, told CNN the study provides new insight into how activity interacts with sedentary behavior and sleep.
“Understanding the interaction between sleep and various physical activities is often not explored,” said Malin, who was not involved in the new study.
While the study had some limitations, including a lack of knowledge about participants’ health, the findings illustrate how “the accumulation of exercise patterns over a day to a week to a month is just as, if not more, important than getting outside for a single exercise session.” , ‘he said.
There was also some bad news: Spending more time sleeping, sitting, or engaging in only light movements was associated with a negative impact on the brain. The study found that cognition decreased by 1% to 2% after replacing an equivalent portion of moderate to vigorous physical activity with eight minutes of sedentary behavior, six minutes of light intensity or seven minutes of sleep.
“In most cases, we showed that just 7 to 10 minutes less MVPA (moderate to vigorous physical activity) was harmful,” Mitchell said.
That change is just an association, not cause and effect, because of the study’s observational methods, Mitchell stressed.
In addition, the study’s findings on sleep can’t be taken lightly, he said. Good quality sleep is critical for the brain to perform at its best.
“The evidence for the importance of sleep for cognitive performance is strong,” Mitchell said, “but there are two important caveats. First, sleeping too long may be associated with poorer cognitive performance.
“Second, sleep quality is perhaps even more important than duration. Our accelerometers can estimate how long people have slept, but cannot tell us how well they slept.”
Additional studies are needed to verify these findings and understand the role of each type of activity. However, Mitchell said the study “highlights how even very modest differences in people’s daily exercise — less than 10 minutes — are associated with quite real changes in our cognitive health.”