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This is how much exercise is needed to help improve thinking skills

Scientists found that people who exercised an average of at least 52 hours over about six months for around an hour each session may improve their thinking skills.

Image: Pavel1964 via Shutterstock

WE KNOW THAT exercise may help improve thinking skills, but how much exercise? US scientists have found out.

To find the answers, researchers reviewed all of the studies where older adults were asked to exercise for at least four weeks and their tests of thinking and memory skills were compared to those of people who did not start a new exercise routine.

The scientists found that people who exercised an average of at least 52 hours over about six months for around an hour each session may improve their thinking skills.

In contrast, people who exercised for an average of 34 hours over the same time period did not show any improvement in their thinking skills.

“These results suggest that a longer-term exercise programme may be necessary to gain the benefits in thinking skills,” said study author Joyce Gomes-Osman, of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine in Florida.

“We were excited to see that even people who participated in lower intensity exercise programmes showed a benefit to their thinking skills. Not everyone has the endurance or motivation to start a moderately intense exercise programme, but everyone can benefit from a less intense plan,” she said.

The review

The review included 98 randomised, controlled trials with a total of 11,061 participants with an average age of 73. Of the total participants, 59% were categorised as healthy adults, 26% had mild cognitive impairment and 15% had dementia. A total of 58% did not regularly exercise before being enrolled in a study.

Researchers collected data on exercise session length, intensity, weekly frequency and amount of exercise over time. Aerobic exercise was the most common type of exercise, with walking the most common aerobic exercise and others including biking and dancing. Some studies used a combination of aerobic exercise along with strength, or resistance training and some used strength training alone. A small number of studies used mind-body exercises such as yoga or Tai Chi.

After evaluating all of the data, researchers found that in both healthy people and people with cognitive impairment, longer-term exposure to exercise, at least 52 hours of exercise conducted over an average of about six months, improved the brain’s processing speed, and the amount of time it takes to complete a mental task.

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In healthy people, that same amount of exercise also improved executive function, a person’s ability to manage time, pay attention and achieve goals. However, researchers found no link between the amount of exercise and improved memory skills. Aerobic exercise, strength training, mind-body exercise and combinations of these were all found to be beneficial to thinking skills.

“Only the total length of time exercising could be linked to improved thinking skills,” Gomes-Osman said.

“But our results may also provide further insight. With a majority of participants being sedentary when they first enrolled in a study, our research suggests that using exercise to combat sedentary behaviour may be a reason why thinking skills improved,” she said.

Future studies could further investigate which thinking abilities experience the greatest improvement with exercise, according to the authors.

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