We all know that exercise is good for our physical health, and in recent years more people are discovering how movement can have a transformative impact on our mental health too. What’s less well known is how fitness can boost your brain power.
But a new study commissioned by Asics has found that exercise can significantly improve cognitive function.
Professor Brendon Stubbs invited 77 competitive gamers from around the world who previously did no exercise to take part in a four-month exercise programme.
Under the guidance of a trainer, the participants – who specialised in games such as chess, mahjong and esports – took part in medium impact cardio and strength training sessions, working up to 150 minutes of activity a week.
Four of the gamers were followed by a camera crew for documentary film Mind Games, TheExperiment.
“We found that exercise in this really specialist population had a meaningful impact on people’s cognitive function – broadly a 10% increase,” says Stubbs, who measured gamers’ problem solving skills, short term memory and executive function, meaning the abilitiy to juggle and prioritise tasks.
Improvements were even seen their gaming. “People’s national ranking went up on average by 50% and international ranking went up by 75%,” he says.
So if these pro-level players can show significant growth, could exercise help everyone to sharpen their mental skills?
Strengthening your grey matter
“There are many well-recognised benefits of exercise on the brain, ranging from reducing stress and anxiety, improving energy, attention and focus, enhancing memory and reducing ageing of the brain and associated neurodegenerative conditions,” says Dr Emer MacSweeney, CEO and consultant neuroradiologist at Re:Cognition Health (recognitionhealth.com).
“Physical exercise has also been shown to modulate brain glucose metabolism which provides the fuel for physiological brain function and the generation of neurotransmitters.”
Scientists don’t know for sure why exercise and cognition are linked, but brain scanning studies suggest that when our heart rate goes up, new neural pathways are formed connecting areas of the brain associated with things like problem solving, memory and emotion.
“Whenever you engage in exercise, you’re getting new pathways developed and strengthened,” Stubbs says. “Much like your muscles, the more use these pathways the stronger they become in the short term. And in the longer term, the more that these areas increase, too.”
Plus, exercise stimulates the production of chemicals such as BDNF (brain derived neurotrophicfactor) and IGF (insulin growth factor), he explains. “These are factors which stimulate new cell growth in areas of the brain, and these are really responsive to muscle contraction, so will help fertilise the brain in a really positive way, to sort of oil those connections.”
So getting fit might make you less likely to lose your car keys or procrastinate on a daily basis, but can it help prevent cognitive decline over your lifespan?
“Exercise is thought to encourage brain cell growth and survival, which may help reduce the risk of developing dementia,” says MacSweeney.
“Exercise also helps promote sleep, which is essential for all aspects of the body including reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s and helping to manage stress, anxiety and other mental health conditions.”
Your mental workout plan
If, like the gamers in the Asics study, you’re starting from scratch on your fitness journey, there’s no need to immediately sign up for marathon training or a hardcore HIIT class.
“Do something you enjoy, because you’re much more likely to start it and much more likely to go and do it again,” says Stubbs. Whether it’s walking, jogging, dance, swimming, a fitness class or a solo session in the gym – mix it up and see what suits.
“Then once you’re in the activity continuum, go on and build up and add variety. Go with friends, go outdoors and experiment and have fun with it all.”
If you’ve already got a regular cardio or strength training routine, try to combine the two for optimal effects.
“[Participants] gradually increased up to 150 minutes of moderate vigorous intensity activity a week, including a two days strength work. That is the ideal scenario for all people,” Stubbs advises.
“But the rate at which people progress to that will vary among individuals. It’s important to remember that some is better than none, and more is better than some.”
For times when you want a quick spike of brain power, such as for an important exam or job interview, moderate exercise that finishes 20 minutes before the big event is best.
“It helps initially excite the nervous system, and then also calm it down thereafter,” Stubbs says. “It’s a really good thing to do immediately before, both to help you concentrate and also feel more calm in yourself and perform better.”