Exercise Enhances Long-Term Brain Function

Brain changes that occur after exercise are predictive of what happens with sustained physical training over time, according to research being presented this week at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS) in San Francisco.

“There is a strong and direct link between physical activity and how your brain works,” said Wendy Suzuki of New York University (NYU), who is chairing a symposium on the topic at CNS, in a press release. “People still do not link physical health to brain and cognitive health; they think about fitting into a bikini or losing that last pound, not about all the brain systems they are improving and enhancing every time they work out.”

In this study, participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans and were administered memory tests before and after single sessions of light-to-moderate intensity exercise and a 12-week training regimen. Researchers used recumbent cycles that were equipped with motorized pedals, enabling the participants to either exert their own force to turn the pedals or to allow the pedals to perform the work.

“This feature allowed us to keep pedal speed constant while only changing heart rate between conditions of light and moderate intensity activity,” said researcher Michelle Voss of the University of Iowa, who led the study.  “This is novel for acute exercise paradigms, which often use sitting as a control condition.”

Immediate Cognitive Effects Displayed

Subsequently, the results suggest that participants who experienced the biggest improvements in cognition and functional brain connectivity after single sessions of a moderate intensity physical activity also exhibited the highest long-term enhancement in cognition and connectivity. This study is the first of its kind in that it exhibits that immediate cognitive effects from exercise reflect long-term effects, as most studies typically evaluate effects on a short- and long-term level. The research team’s initial findings are good news for the field of cognitive neuroscience, as they indicate that the brain changes observed after a single workout study can be a biomarker for long-term training.

Moreover, the research team developed a 3-D game to simulate real-world activity for both cognition and mobility and will be presenting data at the CNS meeting on 14 participants who completed a five-week intervention with the game.

“What is cool is that most participants, regardless of baseline cognitive and physical limitations, learn and improve steadily over sessions,” Voss continued. “We want to help a large segment of the aging population that is sedentary or unable to tap into volunteer opportunities by providing opportunities to increase meaningful physical activity.”

Voss said she looks forward to replicating this initial study’s findings with larger samples. Her lab is currently recruiting participants for a similar study that will include six months of training instead of three months, to give participants more time to improve cardiorespiratory fitness.

“Think about how physical activity may help your cognition today and see what works,” she implored. “Day-by-day, the benefits of physical activity can add up.”