Study shows exercise boosts brainpower

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Posted: November 2012 

Good news for aging baby boomers

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Study shows exercise boosts brainpower

Breaking a sweat can make you smarter, says Dr. Martin Juneau, chief of prevention services in the department of medicine at the Montreal Heart Institute.

His team of researchers put a small group of overweight adults through four months of high-intensity exercise, and then tested their physical and mental abilities. The participants’ average age was 49 and their average body mass index was 29. (A healthy BMI range is between 18.5 and 25.)

With a twice-weekly routine that included cycling and circuit training, participants were expected to drop weight. But the ability of the intense workouts to significantly boost brainpower was an exciting surprise.

After each workout, their cognitive function – the ability to think, recall and make quick decisions – improved significantly, says Dr. Juneau.

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Even more surprising was how closely related exercise and brain function are. The more the group exercised, the more mentally acute they became. “If you talk to people who exercise, they say they feel sharper. Now we’ve found a way to measure that,” says Dr. Juneau.

Dr. Juneau and his colleagues measured the study participants’ cognitive function with neuropsychological testing, as well as their body composition, blood flow to the brain, cardiac output and their maximum ability to tolerate exercise.

The study’s results are good news for baby boomers.

“A decline in cognitive function is a normal part of aging. That drop can be worse for people who have coronary disease. It’s reassuring to know that you can at least partially prevent that decline by exercising and losing weight,” says Dr. Juneau.

As he notes, people can manage their cholesterol or blood pressure with medication, but there is no pill yet that will increase cognitive function. Exercise, he says, can do it all.

Heart and Stroke Foundation spokesperson Dr. Beth Abramson agrees. “At least 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week can make a huge difference in managing risk factors for heart disease and stroke,” she says. “There are many benefits of exercise. We know it can make us feel better. This [study] suggests it can make us think better as well.”

Even 10 minutes of activity at a time helps, Dr. Abramson says. “In fact, to get the most benefit, add more activity to your life over several days of the week.”


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