Anyone who trains for a marathon knows that individual running workouts add up over time to yield a big improvement in physical fitness. So, it should not be surprising that the cognitive benefits from workouts also accumulate to yield long-term cognitive gains. Yet, until now, there was has been little research to describe and support the underlying neurobiology.

The positive effects of physical activity

In new work being presented this week about the effects of exercise on the brain; at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, researchers are finding that brain changes; that occur after a single workout are predictive of what happens; with sustained physical training over time. “There is a strong and direct link between physical activity; and how your brain works,” says Wendy Suzuki. “People still do not link physical health to brain and cognitive health; they think about fitting into a bikini or losing that last pound; not about all the brain systems they are improving and enhancing every time they work out.”

But as new research comes out to illuminate; how different types, amounts, and intensities of physical activity improve brain function; cognitive neuroscientists hope to see a sea change; in how the general public views exercise; from the effects of long-term training to bringing the positive effects; of physical activity to socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. The new study showing that immediate cognitive effects from exercise mirror; long-term ones is the first of its kind; as short- and long-term effects are typically examined; in different studies, says Michelle Voss.

Her team’s initial findings are good news for the field of cognitive neuroscience; as they suggest that the brain changes observed after a single workout study; can be a biomarker of sorts for long-term training. Study participants underwent fMRI brain scans and working memory tests; before and after single sessions of light and moderate intensity exercise; and after a 12-week long training program. So, the researchers found that those; who saw the biggest improvements in cognition and functional brain connectivity; after single sessions of moderate intensity physical activity; also showed the biggest long-term gains in cognition and connectivity.

Time to improve cardiorespiratory fitness

The study used recumbent cycles that had motorized pedals, allowing the participants to either apply their own force to turn the pedals or to let the pedals do the work. “This feature allowed us to keep pedal speed constant while only changing heart rate between conditions of light and moderate intensity activity,” Voss says. “This is novel for acute exercise paradigms, which often use sitting as a control condition.”Voss looks forward to replications of this first study with larger samples.
However, her lab is currently recruiting participants for a similar study that will include 6 months of training instead of 3 months, to give participants more time to improve cardiorespiratory fitness. But in the meantime, she says: “Think about how physical activity may help your cognition today and see what works. So, day-by-day, the benefits of physical activity can add up.” Michelle Carlson is working to bring that message to socioeconomically disadvantaged communities through a novel program called Experience Corps Program, which embeds physical activity into weekly volunteering for older adults to mentor children in local elementary schools.

“We need to address socioeconomic barriers like cost and accessibility to motivate older adults to regularly engage in healthful behaviors,” Carlson says. “And many people don’t appreciate the power of physical activity for our brains.””These and related findings in my lab and others have contributed to our understanding that targeting low-intensity lifestyle activity is increasingly being recognized as important and scalable intervention to promote any physical activity,” she says in conclusion.