A Little Exercise Has Big Brain Benefits, New Study Finds

You’ve probably heard exercise helps you brain work better. But how much is enough to have an effect?

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BY Jessica Stillman - 12 Mar 2018

A Little Exercise Has Big Brain Benefits, New Study Finds

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

The science is incontrovertible: exercise is just as good for your brain as it is for the rest of your body, and just like your heart and your lungs, your brain will work better if you regularly break a sweat. But how much exercise exactly do you need to sharpen your thinking, improve your memory, and lengthen your attention span?

Here's the happy answer courtesy of a new study out of Canada's Western University: just ten minutes will do.

An instant brain booster anyone can manage

While everyone knows exercise is good for you, not everyone takes advantage of this knowledge. There are various reasons for that, but one, certainly, is that many folks claim not to have the time to commit to an ongoing exercise program. Other, less athletic types, are simply daunted by the prospect of running for miles or lifting heavy weights.

The Canadian researchers wanted to know if these reluctant exercisers were missing out on a chance to experience some of the brain benefits of working out -- could even a short, one-time bout of exercise temporarily improve brain function? To find out they recruited volunteers to pass ten minutes one of two ways -- half lazed about reading while the other half pedaled away on an exercise bike. Then all the volunteers were given a task designed to test executive function -- a fancy term for skills like selecting tasks and staying focused, that help us get stuff done in the real world.

The exercisers in this study had hardly signed up for months of grueling workouts, but even their very modest exertions paid significant dividends, the study found.

"Those who had exercised showed immediate improvement," commented study author Matthew Heath. "Their responses were more accurate and their reaction times were up to 50 milliseconds shorter than their pre-exercise values. That may seem minuscule but it represented a 14 percent gain in cognitive performance in some instances."

Putting this study to us in the real world

What does that mean for more real-world scenarios? No one is suggesting that you won't experience more physical and cognitive benefits from a regular exercise program than you do from one quick, ten-minute walk. But if you're looking for baby steps to get started with a less sedentary lifestyle, this study should give you a jolt of motivation. Even the most manageable dose of activity will have a very real impact on your brain function. And just about no one can argue they don't have time or appetite for ten minutes of light exercise.

Heath also suggests that these findings can help those looking to tune up their brains before a big interview or other important occasion that calls for sharp thinking. "I always tell my students before they write a test or an exam or go into an interview -- or do anything that is cognitively demanding - they should get some exercise first. Our study shows the brain's networks like it. They perform better," he concludes.

Give it a try next time you need your brain to perform at its peak.