New research shows that regular physical activity like cycling can help you stay cognitively sharp and improve your memory. How intense and how frequent does the activity need to be? Let’s take a closer look.
A new study from the University of Georgia investigated how physical activity influences cognitive abilities as we age. Researchers followed 51 older adults, tracking their physical activity and fitness measurements. They used devices that measured activity intensity, distance covered, and the number of steps taken. The participants performed tests specifically designed to measure cognitive functioning and underwent MRIs to assess brain functioning.
This study was the first to examine how different brain networks interact with physical activity and fitness to impact how the brain functions.
“This paper is exciting because it gives us some evidence that when people whose brain networks aren’t functioning optimally engage in physical activity, we see improvement in their executive function and their independence,” said Marissa Gogniat, lead author of the study. “This finding isn’t saying that if you’re older, you need to go out there and start running marathons. This is saying if you get more steps, if you’re moving around your environment a little bit more, that can be helpful to your brain health and keep you more independent as you age,” Gogniat adds.
Another new research led by the psychologists of the University of Pittsburgh examined the relationship between exercise and episodic memory. It’s the type of memory that deals with events that happened to you in the past and it’s also one of the first to decline with age. Past analyses looking at this relationship didn’t find a meaningful connection. This new study decided to clear things up by going over 1,279 studies that they narrowed down to just 36 that met specific criteria. This allowed them to examine almost 3,000 participants.
It was enough to show that for older adults, exercise can indeed benefit their memory. They were also able to answer more specific questions about who benefits and how.
“We found that there were greater improvements in memory among those who are age 55 to 68 years compared to those who are 69 to 85 years old, so intervening earlier is better,” said lead author Sarah Aghjayan. The team also found the greatest effects of exercise in those who hadn’t yet experienced any cognitive decline and in studies where participants exercised consistently several times a week.
Researchers also came up with surprisingly specific recommendations for how much you need to exercise to see those benefits.
“Everyone always asks, ‘How much should I be exercising? What’s the bare minimum to see improvement?’ From our study, it seems like exercising about three times a week for at least four months is how much you need to reap the benefits in episodic memory,” said Aghjayan.
It’s quite clear from both of these new studies that exercise and brain health are connected. The good news is that it doesn’t take much to benefit from exercise. Going cycling three times per week for four months? No problem, why not forever?