The Cognitive Benefits of Exercise
When you talk about brain power, it’s the cognitive abilities that people think about first. Who wouldn’t want a perfect memory, unwavering willpower, and the ability to solve problems with lightning speed? Exercise probably won’t give you superhuman abilities. But it is the best way to improve your cognitive potential.
Exercise Improves Your Executive Functions
Executive functions are your higher level thinking skills. This includes inhibitory control, task switching, attention, and goal management to name a few. These skills are important for problem solving, planning, organizing, and behavior. It’s how you function as a normal person in society.
A review of exercise in multiple studies found positive effects for all ages in normal healthy participants. Overall, researchers found that exercise is a simple way for healthy people to optimize their higher order brain functions. However, the specific effects for younger populations still need to be clarified.
Even if you’re a little bit older, exercise can improve these important cognitive skills. One meta-analysis – which is a scientific review of multiple studies – reviewed the results of 18 different papers on the subject. All participants in the studies were considered healthy, but led sedentary lifestyles. While several cognitive benefits were observed, the strongest benefits for this particular population group was for their executive functions.
Exercise Can Increase Your IQ
Most people will tell you that exercising is a smart thing to do. But that’s because it can literally make you smarter.
The topic of IQ is still pretty hotly debated among scientists. Some believe it’s genetic, others that it can be affected by environment. There still seems to be some clarification needed in research. What IQ actually is, what can affect it, and if anything by how much? For now, I’ll let the scientists duke it out.
One of the largest studies ever done tried to shine some light on the subject. Data from over 1 million Swedish men were used and the researchers found something interesting. There was a convincing link between cardiovascular health and performance on IQ tests. Taking it one step further, they also observed that young adults who improved their cardiovascular health between the ages of 15 to 18, also saw an increase in their IQ.
Increases Your Focus
In today’s world of flashing cell phones and beeping technology, we all need the skill to ignore distractions and concentrate on the task at hand. It appears that exercise can help us survive in an increasingly connected world. Good news when everyone and everything is trying to grab our attention.
One of the first studies demonstrating this was published in 2004. The study used two different experiments. The first compared physically fit people to those who weren’t. The second study looked at people who were aerobically trained over several months and compared them to others that received no training. The results found benefits in both studies. Physically fit people have increased control over their ability to focus attention as measured by a challenging cognitive task. The people who were trained over several months also saw these benefits.
That’s great news for regular exercisers, but even better news if you’re thinking about becoming a bit more fit.
Increases Your Cognitive Flexibility
Focus isn’t the only skill needed for a busy life. Our jobs demand us to take on several responsibilities. School studies are stressful and rigorous. And our personal lives can pull us in 100 directions. We are required to multitask, switching thinking modes, and keep track of several things at once.
Research in 2009 looked at the effects of three different levels of exercise in healthy adults. They wanted to measure if the frequency of aerobic exercise had an effect on a persons cognitive abilities. At the end of ten weeks, a battery of cognitive tests were given to the participants. Here’s what they found. They saw that the amount of aerobic exercise correlated with increases in mental speed, attention, and cognitive flexibility. Being the thorough scientists, though, they adjusted for variables like gender and education level. The one mental ability that still held statistical significance was that of cognitive flexibility.
Gives You More Willpower
Willpower is another life skill closely related to your brain’s executive function. Also, willpower is a key ingredient in a successful life. We use it to avoid temptations, stay on track for personal and professional goals, and adhere to healthy habits.
Exercise is one path that can increase your willpower.
A meta-analysis published in 2013 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine looked at several groups of people. Children, adolescents, and adults up to the age of 35. They found that short bouts of exercise had a significant affect across all age groups in areas of executive function, along with inhibition and interference control – which is better known as willpower.
The subject of willpower gets a decent amount of coverage in the media. But rarely is exercise mentioned as a path to increasing self-control.
Helps You Control Your Emotions
Being able to control your emotions might not seem like it’s a cognitive skill. Yes, emotions are a part of our psychological makeup. But the actual ability to control our emotions is a skill of cognitive control. Whenever you reign in an outburst of anger, or continue your day despite feelings of sadness, you are exercising emotional regulation.
Scientists wanted to track changes in self-regulation. So they conducted a 2 month long study where participants where exposed to a program of regular physical exercise. The researchers noted a number of positive changes in behavioral patterns. Among these was a decrease in emotional stress and an increase in emotional control.
If you have a tendency to blow up at people or lose your calm, exercise can help you keep centered. Life is going to throw you a curveball or two, and a calm mind can help you navigate turbulent waters.
Sharpens Your Short Term Memory
Short term memory is sometimes called working memory. There are different definitions used in the scientific community, but for general purposes let’s agree they are very similar. Working memory is the information in your head that’s currently being processed. It’s involved in comprehension, interpretation, and manipulation of data.
It’s also had some mixed results in exercise studies. The intensity of workouts and duration of exercise seem to affect working memory in different ways. However, one study in 2014 had participants complete 30 minute workouts of moderate intensity. At this level of difficulty, researchers found a significant increase in working memory following completion. However, the increased memory capacity was only a short term effect and exact duration not measured. Any long term benefits of exercise on short term memory still need to be determined.
Exercise Helps Your Long Term Memory
There is a strong link between regular exercisers and improved memory. One such review in 2010 found positive and significant improvements among participants who exercised.
Research on acute exercise and its effects on long term memory, however, are pretty few in number. Much like short term memory, the type of exercise, the intensity, and fitness levels of participants may all effect results. Details are being teased out, but there have been a few studies looking at the subject.
The first study split participants up into three groups. Each group was told to recall as much information as possible from two paragraphs. The first group received the information after exercise, the second before exercise, and the last completed no exercise. They found that the group that was exposed to exercise before being given the information performed significantly better at recall than the other two groups.
The effects of resistance exercise on memory was also studied. Subjects were shown photos with different emotional values (neutral, positive, or negative) and then proceeded to exercise using a leg extension machine. After 48 hours, they were asked to recall the photos again. The results found that the group which performed the resistance exercise performed better at recalling, particularly the pictures that were emotionally charged.
Makes You Think Faster
Everyone wishes they could arrive at solutions faster. Who wouldn’t want to be faster at solving problems and remembering things?
White matter is responsible for the transmission of data in and around your brain. Having more white matter in the brain means that your connections are better insulated and more efficient at relaying information in and around your brain. So does exercise help with this too?
It turns out that it does. A study published in 2013 found that older adults with a history of aerobic exercise were observed to have better white matter integrity than their sedentary peers. And it’s not just older adults who benefit. It’s also children. A research article published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience reported that aerobic fitness levels were linked with stronger white matter integrity.
Finally, in another meta-analysis, researchers found 24 studies that looked at processing speed and exercise. They found that exercise gave people a modest improvement in their cognitive speed. And verifying the results mentioned above, it did this across all ages.
Other Effects of Exercise
There’s a lot more exercise can do for you too. To get a look at the other main categories where exercise can have an effect on your life, read this article. And please share this information with your friends!
Image Credit: Jonathan Ehrich