Exercise's Effect on Cognitive Function


It is well known that regular exercise has a beneficial affect on “cardiovascular fitness and function, muscular strength, bone mineral density, weight management, metabolic health, disease prevention and management, as well as mortality.”3 Another benefit of exercise that is not as well known is its effect on cognitive function. For this blog, we will be defining cognitive function as “the mental faculty of knowing, which includes perceiving, recognizing, conceiving, judging, reasoning, and imagining.”3 Cognitive function can be broken down into four subcategories: (1) receptive functions (classifying), (2) memory and learning, (3) thinking, and (4) expressive functions.

First, we will examine exercise’s effects on cognitive functioning in children (4-18 years old). A review by Zoeller (see references) mentioned that there was a significant positive relationship between physical activity and all subcategories of cognitive function except for memory.3 Lately, schools around the United States have been eliminating or decreasing the time spent in a physical education class. Some argue that the reason this is happening is to give the students more time in classes to improve academic performance. However, studies have found that removing this class is doing just the opposite. Students are not preforming as well academically as they did when they were involved in a physical education class multiple times a week.3 This is because of physical activity’s effect on cognitive function. To add to this, prolonged sedentary behavior may be connected to lower levels of attention. This may mean that to get a student to pay attention, give them some time to be active throughout the day.1 It has also been shown that the more students exercise the better they perform academically, the higher their IQ scores, and the better they score on important exams like the SATs.3 Get your children exercising and you may see similar results.

Cognitive function begins going downhill with age especially when it comes to speed and memory.3 With Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease numbers increasing, the influence of exercise on brain function becomes even more important.2 After accounting for genetics, those who exercised more than 3 days per week still had a 34% lower risk of developing Alzheimer disease compared with those who exercised fewer than three days per week.3 This is a large percentage for doing something as simple as moving around at least three days a week. In fact, the type of exercise (aerobic vs. resistance training) has not been shown to have an effect on the amount of cognitive improvements seen. The greatest benefit comes from programs that include both aerobic (ex. Running) and resistance training.3 You can pick any activity and still reap the benefits! In fact, one study found that there was a dose-response relationship between cognitive function and walking. This means that you could just walk in order to see benefits, but the longer and faster you walk increases the benefits and also lowers your chance for dementia.3 Not only will exercising provide improvements in cognitive function, but it will also help fight off some diseases.2

Studies recommend that you exercise for at least 30 minutes three days a week at a moderate intensity for at least six months in order to get the most benefit when it comes to cognitive function. Now you have another reason to exercise! So get up, get moving, and keep moving your way to a healthier life!


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