May 30, 2018

How Much Exercise Is Needed to Help Improve Thinking Skills?

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn -- May 30, 2018 -- We know that exercise may help improve thinking skills. But how much exercise? And for how long?

To find the answers, researchers reviewed all of the studies where older adults were asked to exercise for at least 4 weeks and their tests of thinking and memory skills were compared with those of people who did not start a new exercise routine.

The review, published in Neurology Clinical Practice, found that people who exercised an average of at least 52 hours over about 6 months for about 1 hour each session may improve their thinking skills.

In contrast, people who exercised for an average of 34 hours over the same time period did not show any improvement in their thinking skills.

The review did not find a relationship between a weekly amount of exercise and improved thinking skills.

“These results suggest that a longer-term exercise program may be necessary to gain the benefits in thinking skills,” said Joyce Gomes-Osman, PhD, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Miami, Florida. “We were excited to see that even people who participated in lower intensity exercise programs showed a benefit to their thinking skills. Not everyone has the endurance or motivation to start a moderately intense exercise program, but everyone can benefit even from a less intense plan.”

The review included 98 randomised controlled trials comprising 11,061 participants with an average age of 73 years. Of the participants, 59% were categorised as healthy adults, 26% had mild cognitive impairment, and 15% had dementia. A total of 58% did not regularly exercise before being enrolled in a study.

Researchers collected data on exercise session length, intensity, weekly frequency, and amount of exercise over time. Aerobic exercise was the most common type of exercise, with walking the most common aerobic exercise and others including biking and dancing. Some studies used a combination of aerobic exercise along with strength, or resistance training and some used strength training alone. A small number of studies used mind-body exercises such as yoga or Tai chi.

After evaluating all of the data, researchers found that in both healthy people and people with cognitive impairment longer term exposure to exercise, at least 52 hours of exercise conducted over an average of about 6 months improved the brain’s processing speed. In healthy people, that same amount of exercise also improved executive function. However, researchers found no link between the amount of exercise and improved memory skills. Aerobic exercise, strength training, mind-body exercise and combinations of these were all found to be beneficial to thinking skills.

“Only the total length of time exercising could be linked to improved thinking skills,” said Dr. Gomes-Osman. “But our results may also provide further insight. With a majority of participants being sedentary when they first enrolled in a study, our research suggests that using exercise to combat sedentary behaviour may be a reason why thinking skills improved.”

Future studies could further investigate which thinking abilities experience the greatest improvement with exercise. They could also look at the short-term and long-term effects of exercise in both sedentary and physically fit individuals.


SOURCE: American Academy of Neurology
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