A sweaty, 20-minute workout could give your memory a big boost, study finds

Many people experienced a similar boost from a 20-min workout as from 3 months of training.


The brain of older people can get a boost from exercise almost instantaneously. A 20-minute activity like using a stationary bike can noticeably improve the thinking ability — producing the same effects on the brain as 3 months of regular exercise.

A preliminary study that claims these findings was presented at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society annual meeting. The results suggest that short-term benefits from exercising could predict who and how much someone might benefit from long-term exercise.

The similarity in how the brain was affected by short bouts of exercise and months of training is a surprise. The results basically suggest that someone hoping to see the effects of a workout style need not wait 3 months to make a decision on them.

The similarity between a single bout of exercise and months of training "suggests we don’t have to wait three months to see an improvement," Michelle Voss, a cognitive neuroscientist from the University of Iowa in Iowa City, told ScienceNews. "We can get a day-by-day boost."

 A sweaty, 20-minute workout could give your memory a big boost, study finds

The study examined 34 people with an average age of 67 using brain scans, memory tests and exercise. The researchers studied these effects from a single, 20-minute stint on a stationary bike which was strenuous enough to cause people to sweat.

Before and after the exercise each subject was scanned using a functional MRI (fMRI) brain scan and memory tests involving recollection of previously-shown faces.

The team did similar brain tests on a different day after participants spent 20 minutes on a bike that pedalled for them.

On average, people were better at remembering faces, particularly if the task was hard, after spending time on the self-pedalling bike. Certain connections between brain areas got stronger, too, the fMRI scans showed.

A collection of brain CT scans to spot tumours. Image courtesy: NCL UK

A collection of brain CT scans to spot tumours. Image courtesy: NCL UK

"If it’s not working for some people, that’s good to know," Voss says. "But you can go one step further and ask, 'Are the reasons it’s not working modifiable? And can we learn that quickly? Can we fail fast?'"

Answering these and teasing apart the way brains respond to different kinds of exercise is guaranteed to lead to some "very exciting" findings, Wendy Suzuki from New York University, told ScienceNews. While the results are still from early trials, "this is exactly the right question to ask."

According to Suzuki, exercises are very much a medicine — the keyword being "personalised" medicine. Exercise, too, like personalised medication, can be designed to suit a person's age, fitness level, gender and genetic background someday, she adds.

It may still be theoretical but scientists have a lot to understand how exercise affects different people differently.

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