How exercise and physical activity can also help improve brainpower
The benefits of exercise for health and well-being have been written for a long time. In the June 2022 issue of Consumer Reports, one of the main features was titled “Boost Your Brain Power.” The article focused on people 55 years and older and habits to follow to prevent dementia and keep mentally sharp. A list of 16 different tips to follow to keep up your brainpower included what foods are beneficial and daily practices as you go about your day that are recommended. The obvious habits of not smoking, indulging in too much alcohol, getting enough sleep and watching the numbers on blood pressure and blood sugar are very common mentions. The good foods included salads, berries, seafood and indulging in two or three cups of coffee. For this article on running and fitness, the item that got my attention was “get enough physical activity.”
The benefits of exercise for brain power included boosting the blood flow to the brain and increasing the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is involved in verbal memory and learning. The amount of exercise recommended by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was that adults get 150 minutes weekly of moderately intense exercise. An example given was getting about 30 minutes five times a week of brisk walking. Some researchers recommend getting 30 minutes each day. Research suggests that exercise sessions of 45 to 60 minutes offer the biggest brain benefits.
One study showed that individuals over 55 years of age that were inactive had improvements in thinking after six months of walking three times a week. That was good news for those individuals approaching senior citizen status in that walking only three times a week resulted in better thinking ability. Three times a week is below the recommendation of five times a week, or daily walking for 45 to 60 minutes, and was still able to show improvement.
While this article primarily focused on older individuals, there has been research on benefits for younger populations also. One research study from California years ago demonstrated that physical activity was beneficial in maintaining good grades in school. The study looked at the results of the California fitness test given to all students. The test included six different exercises. The results compared the grade average of students and the number of fitness tests they passed. Those students that passed all six tests had a very high percentage of “A” grades. The results showed that students that did not pass all six tests also had lower grade averages. The students that passed five tests averaged lower scores and were more likely to get a “B” grades. The trend continued downward with the number of tests passed. Four tests passed were more likely to have “C” grades. The students that only passed one test or failed all of them had a higher percentage of failing grades. It demonstrated that fitness has benefits in study habits and getting passing grades.
One other study came out of Naperville, Illinois schools. The physical education teacher had a “Zero Hour” physical education class. The class met before school started for one hour a day. The focus was on fitness versus being able to play sports. The students that volunteered for the “Zero Hour” physical education class showed a 17% improvement in reading and comprehension versus the students that slept in only improved by 10.7%.
The district saw the results and included it in the curriculum. The most telling example was students taking the Trends in International Mathematics and Science study. This was a test designed to compare students’ knowledge levels from different countries in two key subject areas. The usual results showed that nearly half of the Asian countries scored in the top tier versus students from the U. S. scored only 7% at that mark. The Naperville eighth-graders took the test. The results had the students finish in first place in the science test and sixth place in the math section. As a whole, students in the U. S. finished in 18th place in science and 19th place in math. One other study compared students taking an exercise class one hour before a math test with another group of students that had a study hour before the test. The exercise students scored higher on the test than the pre-test study group. Exercise first, then study seems to be the recommendation.