The right amount of physical exercise needed to improve thinking and memory skills has been identified by recent research.
The research team finds that people who exercised an average of at least 52 hours over about six months for about an 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.
The review included 98 randomized, controlled trials with a total of 11,061 participants with an average age of 73. Of the total participants, 59 percent were categorized as healthy adults, 26 percent had mild cognitive impairment and 15 percent had dementia. A total of 58 percent 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 six months, improved the brain's processing speed, the amount of time it takes to complete a mental task. In healthy people, that same amount of exercise also improved executive function, a person's ability to manage time, pay attention and achieve goals. 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 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 behavior 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.
The study is published in Neurology Clinical Practice, an official journal of the American Academy of Neurology.