How can physical activity help with cognitive decline? 

Cognitive decline is common with age. However, a new study has found that moderate to high-intensity workouts could help to reduce some of its effects. 

For the study, which was conducted by University College London and published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health,, the researchers put activity trackers on 4,500 participants and tracked their movements for a seven-day period. 

They then examined the link between their activity and cognitive skills like problem-solving, processing, and short-term memory. 

The results of the study found that moderate activity, such as cycling or brisk walking, and vigorous activity like jogging, swimming, and cycling uphill, improved the participants’ memory, planning and organization skills, and other cognitive skills.

People who spent small amounts of time doing more vigorous exercise had higher cognition scores than those who did gentle exercise or no exercise, even after just 6 to 9 minutes. It had the biggest impact on processes like planning but was also beneficial to working memory. These improvements grew with any additional time spent doing energetic workouts. 

Study author John Mitchell, a Medical Research Council doctoral training student at the Institute of Sport, Exercise and Health at University College London, commented: “Given we don’t monitor participants’ cognition over many years, this may be simply that those individuals who move more tend to have higher cognition on average. However, yes, it could also imply that even minimal changes to our daily lives can have downstream consequences for our cognition.”

The study also found that the more time participants spent sleeping, sitting, or taking part in mild exercise, the higher the chances of cognitive decline. They found that by replacing moderate or high-intensity exercise with sedentary behavior, cognition declined by 1% – 2%. 

John Mitchell added: “In most cases we showed that as little as 7 to 10 minutes less MVPA (moderate to vigorous physical activity) was detrimental. The evidence on the importance of sleep for cognitive performance is strong yet there are two major caveats. 

First, over-sleeping can be linked to poorer cognitive performance. Secondly, sleep quality may be even more important than duration. Our accelerometer devices can estimate how long people slept for, but cannot tell us how well they slept.”

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