Regular physical activity can improve thinking skills

Regular physical activity such as walking, cycling, or climbing stairs can improve thinking skills not only in adults but also in young people, according to a study published in the online edition of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. The study also found that the positive effect of exercise on thinking skills may be greater in older people.

The specific set of thinking skills that can be improved through physical activity is called executive function. The executive function is the ability of a person to regulate his own behavior, to concentrate, to be well organized and to achieve his goals.

"As people age, there can be a decline in thinking skills, however our study shows that getting regular exercise may help slow or even prevent such decline," said study author Yaakov Stern, PhD, of Columbia University in New York, and a member of the American Academy of Neurology. "We found that all participants who exercised not only showed improvements in executive function but also increased the thickness in an area of the outer layer of their brain."

The study involved 132 people between the ages of 20 and 67 who had low physical activity at the start of the study. For a period of 6 months the participants were randomly divided into two groups and trained 4 times a week. The first group performed aerobic exercises such as walking on a treadmill, training on an exercise bike or elliptical machine, and the other group - stretching and toning. The two groups were equally balanced in the beginning by age, gender, education, and thinking skills.

Researchers have found that aerobic exercise increases thinking skills. From the beginning of the study to the end, those who did aerobic exercise improved their overall performance in performance tests by 0.50 points, which is a statistically significant difference compared to those who did stretching and toning, who improved with 0.25 points. At the age of 40, the improvement in mental skills is 0.228 units of standard deviation higher in those who exercise compared to those who did stretching and toning, and at the age of 60 is 0.596 units of standard deviation higher.

"Since a difference of 0.5 standard deviations is equivalent to 20 years of age-related difference in performance on these tests, the people who exercised were testing as if they were about 10 years younger at age 40 and about 20 years younger at age 60," Stern said.


Bruce W. Bailey, Matthew D. Allen, James D. LeCheminant, Larry A. Tucker, William K. Errico, William F. Christensen, Marshall D. Hill. Objectively Measured Sleep Patterns in Young Adult Women and the Relationship to Adiposity. American Journal of Health Promotion, 2013; 131107080257006 DOI: 10.4278/ajhp.121012-QUAN-500