Analysis: aside from physical and mental health benefits, regular exercise can also boost our brains

What would you say if I told you that there is something that you can do right now to improve your brain's ability to sustain attention and focus? This would also protect your brain from neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia. Best of all, it's absolutely free!

I am referring to simply moving your body and getting physically active. Despite the benefits of physical activity, Healthy Ireland suggest that 68% of Irish people are not active enough to meet physical activity recommendations. This directly correlates with the increased prevalence of sedentary lifestyles where people basically are inactive and don't move.

This is concerning given that physical activity reduces the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disorders. Those who engage in as little as one hour exercise per week are up to 50% less likely to suffer from depression. Consequently, getting active in any capacity will lead to relative health benefits, particularly during times of adversity such as the current Covid-19 pandemic.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Claire Byrne, Professor Cliona O'Farrelly from TCD on how exercise boosts our immune system

For many, engaging in a regular exercise routine is a form of escapism which allows us to switch off from external stressors, such as work-related anxiety. However, most people are unaware that engaging in exercise can also lead to cognitive benefits, such as how we gain knowledge and understand through thought, experience, and the senses. Emerging research highlights exercise’s role as a potential therapeutic tool to prevent, delay and/or treat cognitive decline throughout the lifespan.

Cognitive decline is a common, though not inevitable, process associated with growing old that leads to a downturn in skills such as how quickly we can process information and sustain attention. This issue is increasingly important given that we are living longer, meaning that there is a higher risk of such neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

However, there is cause for optimism as a single session of exercise has been shown to improve cognitive skills among older adults with and without cognitive impairments. Long-term studies also suggest that remaining active is helpful to delay the onset of cognitive decline and improve symptoms among patients with pre-existing diagnosis.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today show, what are the best exercises for different age groups?

Similarly, children, adolescents, and adults stand to experience cognitive benefits from physical activity. Single sessions of exercise appear to most benefit skills such as attention, problem solving, and decision-making, with effects lasting up to two hours after exercise. These benefits are highly relevant to areas such as academic performance, workplace productivity and subsequent quality of life. Highlighting the cognitive benefits, in addition to the physical and mental health benefits, may encourage young people to engage in physical activity more often and to develop a life-long passion.

Many researchers regard exercise as one of the most transformative things that you can do for your brain with short and long-term implications. Such benefits should be a key consideration for official government departments when implementing new policies. Of course, more research is needed to broaden our understanding but the signs to date are promising. Specifically, identifying the optimal intensity, duration and exercise type for each age group will be of keen interest.

What can you do right now?

As mentioned above, there is uncertainty about what the optimal duration of exercise is to experience the most benefits, but official governing bodies recommend engaging in some form of physical activity three to four days per week for at least 30 minutes per sesssion. Aerobic exercise (such as walking, cycling, running, swimming etc) has been shown to be one of the most effective means of enhancing cognition. Alternative exercise methods have received less attention, but also show show promising findings.

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From RTÉ Brainstorm, is 10,000 really the magic number for steps in a day?

The beauty of exercise is that it is very convenient. It can be done in your own living room or garden, with or without any equipment. You do not need an expensive gym membership, fancy equipment or extensive knowledge to experience the benefits.

In addition, simply making small changes in your everyday life will also reap a wide range of positive benefits. Walking to the shop instead of driving and taking the stairs instead of the elevator will undoubtedly lead to positive health benefits. Getting your body moving more and tracking your movement using step counters (available on all smartphones) will boost your mood, give you more energy, and lead to many cognitive benefits, all of which will contribute to better overall quality of life.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ