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Exercise in Young People Increases Brain Function

I take a daily half-hour run each day. It helps me to keep my weight down, unwind after a stressful work day, and focus my thoughts and priorities for the next day (my dog doesn’t mind the exercise, either.) While I know my daily run never fails to lift my mood and put an extra kick in my step, I’ve never given much thought to whether my daily walk was helping my brain function - but as it turns out, there may be good news for frequent exercisers like me.

There is already plenty of evidence that aerobic exercise improves cognitive function in older adults, but how it affects young adults is still unclear.

Now researchers from the University of Otago in New Zealand have found that younger women who exercised regularly had higher oxygen availability in the frontal lobe of their brains and performed best on difficult cognitive tasks compared to counterparts who exercised less. Cognitive function covers thinking, memory, learning, reasoning, intelligence, attention, visual and motor skills and language. 

For their study, the team, led by Dr. Liana Machado, recruited 52 healthy female university students aged 18-30. They were required to perform a range of computer-based tests while the oxygen availability in the frontal lobe of their brains was measured. They were also asked about how often they exercised. Both blood supply to the brain and cognitive function improved when the young women were regular exercisers, regardless of their weight or body mass index (BMI). 

“This provides compelling evidence that regular exercise, at least five days per week, is a way to sharpen our cognitive ability as young adults - challenging the assumption that living a sedentary lifestyle leads to problems only later in life,” said Dr. Machado. 

Dr Machado said brisk walking was strong enough to provide a beneficial effect, and people who can’t fit in a larger block of exercise can get the same results with short bursts of exercise as little as 10 minutes long.

The news has implications for American schoolchildren, as many physical exercise classes and play times like recess have been cut in the race to improve academic test scores. The new research suggests that a lack of exercise could lead to less cognitive function - the exact opposite of the desired result.

For now, I’ll keep running with my dog every day and feel happy that my daily run is exercising more than the muscles in my legs and arms. It’s also keeping my brain healthy and firing on all cylinders. 


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