A brief bout of aerobic exercise can help if you need to stay focused on a task and solve problems more efficiently.
It’s not news that exercise is good for your body. You can probably recite the litany of physical benefits of regular activity: Exercise helps control your weight, lowers your blood pressure, and dampens inflammation. It reduces the risk of having a heart attack or stroke or of developing diabetes or certain cancers.
But exercise is just as important for your mind. Not only is regular exercise associated with a reduced risk of depression and anxiety, there is mounting evidence that it slows cognitive decline and may reduce the risk of dementia. “There is good evidence that exercise behaves like medicine to improve brain health and thinking skills. There is a growing body of science behind this,” says Dr. Scott McGinnis, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Moreover, it turns out that some of exercise’s benefits are almost instantaneous. Recent research has shown that 20 to 30 minutes of exercise before undertaking a mental task may quicken reaction time and sharpen decision making.
What the research found
Several studies conducted over the past few decades have determined that doing aerobic exercise shortly be-fore taking a test improved young adults’ reaction times and performance on standardized mental exams. However, although there was accumulating evidence that months of regular exercise improved older people’s cognitive function, few studies testing the immediate effects of exercise included people over 60.
Studies over the last few years are filling that void. The studies employ common standardized tests that evaluate reaction time, decision making, and memory. Results reported to date indicate that older brains get the same benefit from exercise as younger ones. Here’s a sample:
Exercise works for adults of all ages. A team of Stanford researchers studied 144 men and women ages 19 to 91, who were randomly assigned to two groups. All of the participants took a test that assessed memory and reaction time. One group looked at pictures for 30 minutes, while the other rode stationary bikes at a moderate rate. Both groups then took the test again. The participants who had exercised—regardless of age—had significant improvements in their reaction times while the sedentary group showed no improvement.
Exercise works for older men and women. In a 2015 Chinese study of 46 healthy people ages 60 to 70, 30 minutes on an exercise bike improved both accuracy and reaction time. Moreover, people who were the most fit had significantly greater improvement than those who were least fit.
Exercise gives older fit women a brain boost. In 2015, researchers at Bowling Green State University reported a study of 11 healthy, fit women ages 60 to 75. The women took the mental test twice—after 20 minutes of moderate cycling and after 20 minutes of vigorous cycling. Their scores improved significantly after both exercise bouts, but moderate exercise seemed to work about as well as the more intense workout.
The bottom line
The next time you’re facing a challenge—be it a difficult crossword puzzle or the road test to renew your li-cense—you may want to take a brisk walk beforehand. Better yet, make that walk a daily practice. You’ll get a bigger brain benefit from exercise the next time you need it, and you may be increasing your chances of pre-serving your mental capacity for years to come.
Try a cup of joe for an extra brain jolt
A cup of coffee before a morning walk may have additional brain benefits. Studies have shown that ingesting caffeine immediately before a workout both sharpens athletes’ cognitive skills and increases their speed and endurance.
Even when you’re not able to exercise, a cup or two of coffee can improve mental speed and accuracy in decision making, according to preliminary results presented at the April 2016 meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society. Researchers from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom gave cognitive tests to 38 healthy adults, ages 55 to 91, on different days. One day the participants were tested after drinking a cup of decaf; another day, after downing a cup of regular coffee. The researchers found modest improvements in the participants’ reaction time and accuracy only after they drank regular coffee.