The Benefit of Even a Single Bout of Exercise

Researchers find a single bout of exercise boosts cognition & working memory performance

In experiments that included physical activity, brain scans and working memory tests, University of Iowa researchers found that participants experienced the same cognitive benefits and improved memory from a single exercise session as they did from longer, regular exercise.

In terms of behavioral change and cognitive benefits from physical activity, you can say, ‘I’m just going to be active today. I’ll get a benefit.’ So, you don’t need to think of it like you’re going to train for a marathon to get some sort of optimal peak of performance. You just could work at it day by day to gain those benefits. Michelle Voss

34 adults were enrolled between 60 and 80 years of age who were healthy but not regularly active. Each participant rode a stationary bike on two separate occasions—with light and then more strenuous resistance when pedaling—for 20 minutes. Before and after each exercise session, each participant underwent a brain scan and completed a memory test.

In the brain scan, the researchers examined bursts of activity in regions known to be involved in the collection and sharing of memories. In the working memory tests, each participant used a computer screen to look at a set of eight young adult faces that rotated every three seconds—flashcard style—and had to decide when a face seen two “cards” previously matched the one they were currently viewing.

After a single exercise session, the researchers found in some individuals increased connectivity between the medial temporal (which surrounds the brain’s memory center, the hippocampus) and the parietal cortex and prefrontal cortex, two regions involved in cognition and memory. Those same individuals also performed better on the memory tests.

The benefits can be there a lot more quickly than people think. The hope is that a lot of people will then keep it up because those benefits to the brain are temporary. Understanding exactly how long the benefits last after a single session, and why some benefit more than others, are exciting directions for future research. Michelle Voss

The participants also engaged in regular exercise, pedaling on a stationary bike for 50 minutes three times a week for three months. One group engaged in moderate-intensity pedaling, while another group had a mostly lighter workout in which the bike pedals moved for them.

Most individuals in the moderate and lighter-intensity groups showed mental benefits, judging by the brain scans and working memory tests given at the beginning and at the end of the three-month exercise period. But the brain gains were no greater than the improvements from when they had exercised a single time.

The result that a single session of aerobic exercise mimics the effects of 12 weeks of training on performance has important implications both practically and theoretically.

Source: “Acute exercise effects predict training change in cognition and connectivity” published online Aug. 2 in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

In Category: Exercise

Ready To Upgrade Your Wellbeing?

Join WellCoach

WellCoach Noel Lyons holds a Masters degree in Exercise + Health Science. Mixing 30 years experience with Neuroscience, Positive Psychology, Sports Science and Best Practice, Noel coaches high performers worldwide to thrive (both personally & professionally) by maximising their Wellbeing levels.