You already know that exercise has myriad benefits for your physical health. Now a new study shows that exercise over time boosts brain health, too. Evidence supporting the new research, being presented in San Francisco this week at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, found that "brain changes that occur after a single workout are predictive of what happens with sustained physical training over time," according to a press release. This means that committing to a regular exercise routine could improve your cognitive functioning now and in the future.
"There is a strong and direct link between physical activity and how your brain works," Wendy Suzuki of New York University, who is chairing a symposium on the topic at CNS, said in the press release. She added that while the focus of exercise has long been on improving the body, people often neglect to take in account "all the brain systems they are improving and enhancing every time they work out."
The study tracked participants' brain activity using functional MRI imaging and memory tests after single sessions of light and moderate exercise and again after 12 weeks of regular fitness. The best news is the study found that in addition to long-term benefits, exercise also provides immediate benefits for the brain, which means you don't have to wait a long time to feel the effects of a single workout. You've probably experienced this boost after going for a walk, run, or even a swim.
"The researchers found that those who saw the biggest improvements in cognition and functional brain connectivity after single sessions of moderate intensity physical activity also showed the biggest long-term gains in cognition and connectivity," the announcement stated.
Myriad other studies have touted everything from walking to improve long-term brain health to dance classes like Zumba to reduce anxiety. Whether it's a brisk walk around the block after work or a trip to the gym, basically anything that gets you moving is good for your brain. This is why any sort of exercise is recommended as part of a treatment plan for relieving anxiety and depression.
I know, I know, the last thing you want to think about when you're anxious and depressed is exercising. Trust me, I get it. However, even a short walk can help you feel a little bit better. If you don't want to go outside, you can do something simple like the Scientific 7-Minute Workout at home. Even if you hate exercising, this workout is over in seven minutes.
"In people who are depressed, neuroscientists have noticed that the hippocampus in the brain — the region that helps regulate mood — is smaller," Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, told Harvard Health. "Exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression."
Aside from reliving symptoms of anxiety and depression, keeping your cognitive skills sharp is a good reason to take the stairs or do some stretching on your lunch break. Suzuki noted in the CNS announcement that she has experienced these benefits first hand, stating that regular exercise has helped improve her memory.
While the study found that more research is necessary to identify specific exercise that best benefit the brain health of people at every age, this new research suggests that even light exercise has brain-boosting benefits and moderate-intensity exercise has significant long-term cognitive perks. This means that if you start today, you might feel better tomorrow. And over time, you could develop a better memory. That's reason enough to go for a walk.