I probably don't have to tell you about the health benefits of working out, since you probably already know that it has countless positive effects on for your physical well-being. But if you were hoping that doing three miles on the elliptical or practicing an hour of Pilates was going to help improve your mental strength, too, I have bad news for you: A new study found that being physically active doesn't lead to better cognitive functioning. Sorry, guys!
The research, which was published in JAMA, was led by Dr. Kaycee Sink, the director of the Memory Assessment Clinic at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. The sample focused mostly on elderly patients; the 1,600 participants were all between the ages of 70 and 89, and they led largely sedentary lifestyles.
Each participant was given either a walking-based workout or assigned to participate in a health education program that didn't involve as much physical exertion as the walking workout. After following the workout or health education program for two years (you heard me — two years!), the participants were then given cognitive functioning tests to see how their exercise regime affected their mental abilities. The researchers were surprised to find that the participants' scores remained about the same as they did prior to the start of the study, even when other lifestyle factors were controlled for.
Speaking to TIME magazine, Dr. Sink told TIME noted that the idea of working out not improving mental abilities “flies in the face of conventional wisdom." However, she did go on to postulate that perhaps it was because the study's participants were elderly that there were no positive cognitive benefits found from this study; it's possible that the results might not hold true for all age groups. “We certainly can’t rule out that exercise is something that needs to start earlier... Life long healthy habits are probably important," she reasoned.
And it turns out that there were a few small benefits for specific groups of people that led to some improved mental capability; Dr. Sink and her team found that those 80 years and older showed benefits in functions like recall and memory, which leads to them to believe that in order to reap cognitive rewards from your physical activity, timing is everything.
There is also some question from the team about how the health education program specifically may have benefited the seniors. Since the classes were interactive, many of the participants befriended one another and became more active socially as well as physically. "That social stimulation may be as important as physical activity in keeping brain functions sharp," Sink told TIME. Sink also emphasized the fact that working out is still worth doing, even if it doesn't appear to have any brainy side effects: “Even though we couldn’t prove that exercising is better for the brain than attending education classes, exercise is still good for the body in many ways,” she noted.
There are plenty of ways to keep working your brain as well as your body, even if they don't necessarily happen at the same time (brainteasers, anyone?). So get flexing!