Research has found that working out can help change and improve the health of your brain.
If you’re looking for a way to improve your problem-solving skills and other executive functions, there’s a simple activity to try: aerobic exercise.
Exercise has been known to improve cognitive function in older adults, but a new study finds it does the same in young and middle-aged adults as well.
Researchers from Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons set out to explore the effects of exercise on 132 adults between the ages of 20 and 67. They found those who were more active appeared to have improved executive function.
The researchers published their findings in the journal Neurology today.
Previous research has focused mostly on exercise and brain function in older adults, so there wasn’t much information on how it could affect the brain function of younger people.
Namely, exercise boosts executive function, which involves reasoning, problem-solving, and planning, the researchers found. The effects were stronger in study participants who were older.
“Executive functioning is necessary for us to do things like adequately manage our finances and make healthcare-related decisions and complex activities, like driving and reacting appropriately in an emergency,” explained Joyce Gomes-Osman, PhD, an assistant professor in physical therapy and neurology and director of the Neuromotor Plasticity Laboratory at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. She wasn’t involved with the study.
As part of the experiment, 132 people with below-average aerobic capacity were assigned into two groups. One group performed aerobics, and the other group did stretching and core-strengthening exercises.
The study participants were tested for executive function, processing speed, language, attention, and episodic memory before the start of the study and again at 12 weeks and 24 weeks.
They worked out four times a week. Those in the aerobics group did a variety of exercises and were required to reach their target heart rates.
There was a significant improvement in executive function in those who were in the aerobics group. But across all ages, the greater the age, the better the improvement, the researchers discovered.
Since our executive function typically peaks around the time we’re 30, experts point out that taking up aerobic exercise may help mitigate aging-related mental decline.
Yaakov Stern, PhD, study author and chief of cognitive neuroscience in the department of neurology and a faculty member in the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain at Columbia University, said in a statement that the workouts may help people regain some cognitive function they may have lost.
“I think that aerobic exercise is good at rescuing lost function, as opposed to increasing performance in those without a decline,” Stern said.
Aerobics didn’t improve processing speed, attention, language, or memory. Other research has indicated it can improve those factors in people over 55.
Stern says a larger study may be able to detect whether aerobics improves those markers in younger people. Exercise may also have different effects in younger and older populations, he added.
Brain images from 24 weeks after the program began showed that aerobics was linked to significantly increased cortical thickness in the left caudal middle frontal cortex, which has been linked to executive function.
“We did not see a relationship between the improvement in executive function and the change in cortical thickness,” Stern noted. “With exercise we saw an increase in cortical thickness in a frontal area, an area typically associated with executive function.”
The researchers also observed that aerobics increased gray matter in the brain. Gray matter volume and cell density tends to correlate positively with various abilities and skills. The rise in gray matter wasn’t associated with the participant’s age.
Stern says the study adds to the body of evidence that finds aerobics is beneficial for younger people. A follow-up study may not yield similar results, though, he says. The study also focused on people who didn’t regularly exercise and had below-average respiratory capacity.
“Still, I think it’s fair for people to take away the idea that aerobic exercise is good for you, and good for maintaining cognition. This applies to people across the entire age range,” he told Healthline.
Gomes-Osman says more research is needed to find out how to “dose” exercise when we want to improve cognition. That’s challenging, because everyone is different. Plus, researchers are still learning about how exercise changes our brains.
“The best exercise for one person may be quite different from the best exercise for another person,” she said.
Though there’s still a lot unknown on this topic, the studies seem to agree that cognitive improvements following exercise happen mostly from aerobic function, Gomes-Osman says.
Aerobics can help your health in a variety of ways. It’s been linked to increased capacity of the heart, lungs, and blood to transport oxygen.
As a result, the number of blood vessels and synapses, along with brain volume, increase. At the same time, age-related brain atrophy decreases.
Effects have also been noted in brain areas that correlate to thinking and problem-solving, as have boosts in the number of new nerve cells and proteins that help these neurons survive and thrive, Gomes-Osman explains.
She published a report last year in Neurology that assessed nearly 100 randomized controlled trials and found that the most stable improvements in thinking abilities associated with exercise were in processing speed and executive function.
“This was a very exciting finding, because these two cognitive abilities are among the first to show changes during age-related cognitive decline,” Gomes-Osman said. “So, our study essentially shows that you can ‘turn back the clock’ of aging when you engage in the practice of regular exercise.”
That said, it’s important to note that’s different than saying regular exercise can protect one from developing a neurodegenerative disease, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Gomes-Osman explains.
But in general evidence suggests that many different types of exercise can contribute to improved thinking abilities, notes Gomes-Osman.
“Given that all of these are associated with evidence specifically supporting benefits for brain health, you should maintain a diverse practice,” she added.