You’re never too young to start boosting your brain: Riding a bike, going for a run, and doing any sort of aerobic exercise may improve thinking skills in adults as young as 20—and those benefits only get better with age, according to new published in Neurology.
Psychiatrists have long called aerobic exercise “” because of its power to pump up the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF, for short), a protein that promotes neuron growth and is associated with memory and learning.
Research shows exercise can sharpen memory, improve concentration, boost problem solving ability, and ward off age-related diseases that cause cognitive impairment.
Much of this research has traditionally centered on older adults, who are at higher risk for age-related cognitive decline. But this new study from Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons shows that adults as young as 20 can strengthen their cognitive capability with aerobic exercise.
To test how exercise can boost the brainpower of adults of all ages, the researchers recruited 132 men and women between the ages of 20 and 67 who had below-average fitness levels. They measured their cognitive abilities with a series of tests, and had half the group perform aerobic exercise of their choosing—working at 75 percent of their max heart rate—four days a week, while the other half performed stretching and core exercises.
After six months, those performing aerobic exercise showed twice the improvement in their thinking skills, improving their overall scores on executive function significantly more than those who did stretching and core work alone.
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Executive function is an umbrella term for all the jobs your brain needs to do to manage yourself and your resources to get things done, including planning, paying attention, organizing, and shifting gears. The older the participants were, the more pronounced their improvements in executive function, with those 60 and older seeing the greatest gains.
In fact, exercise improved the thinking ability of the older adults by up to two decades, said study author Yaakov Stern, Ph.D., of Columbia University in New York, . “…the people who exercised were testing as if they were about 10 years younger at age 40 and about 20 years younger at age 60,” Stern said.
“Executive function usually peaks around age 30, and I think that aerobic exercise is good at rescuing lost function, as opposed to increasing performance in those without a decline,” Stern said in the release.
As more evidence of the literal brain-building powers of exercise, the researchers also found that the aerobic exercise group showed an increase in the thickness of the outer layer of the brain in the left frontal area.
Of course, this study was on people who were not physically fit to begin with, so it’s unclear how the results would have differed in an already aerobically fit group. Though given the tall body of research on the benefits of exercise on general brain health and protection from diseases like dementia, keeping as fit as you can certainly seems like a bright idea.