Athletes, actors, parents and gym teachers alike have, for years, preached the value of starting each day off with a good workout. Not only does a morning run, swim, or trip to the gym get your daily sweat over and done with early in the day, but it’s been said that this exercise can help prevent sickness and disease as well as provide people with lasting energy, an upbeat attitude, and a strong work ethic that carries over into anything a person has on tap for the day. Obviously we are all aware of numerous health benefits and improvements in quality of life that come as a result of daily exercise, however, what many (including myself) are wondering is, can exercise be just as beneficial to the brain as it is to the body? In researching this question, I will seek evidence supporting the idea that exercise can improve brain function (alternative hypothesis) rather than opting to believe the null hypothesis, that exercise does not have any effect on the function of the human brain.
At the onset of my research, I wanted to take a look at how exercise could potentially improve brain function specifically in relation to children and young adults. As it turns out, the cognitive benefits of exercise maybe be evident in young people more so than people of any other age group, and the children who benefit the most as a result of frequent exercise may continue reaping the benefits much later in life. In one study, researchers analyzed (via a series of reaction tests and choice-response tasks) how the brains of children were impacted by 30 minutes of aerobic exercise prior to testing in comparison to children who had not done any physical activity. The results showed that the children who had exercised prior to their task evaluation performed significantly better than the children who had not exercised at all. Interestingly, the cognitive abilities of children and young adults were found to be considerably increased as a result of exercise not just on a day-to-day basis, but for the long-term. In a study published in 2014 that was conducted over a 25-year period, children were asked to run on a treadmill before having a variety of their cognitive abilities tested (including verbal memory, memory capacity, reasoning skills, problem-solving ability, and multitasking ability, amongst others). 25 years later, the same subjects, now adults, returned and were given the same test they had completed as children. As a result of this study, researchers were able to determine that the individuals who exhibited above average cardio-respiratory fitness as kids typically had a higher level of cognitive ability once they reached their 40’s and 50’s. In addition, the subjects who exhibited the least decline in cardio-respiratory fitness over the course of the 25-year period also had a greater level of cognitive functionality than those whose fitness levels decreased over time. Based on these two studies it can be determined that there is, at the very least, significant evidence supporting my alternative hypothesis, that exercise can improve brain function.
After observing how physical activity can be beneficial to the minds of people as young as children and all the way up to middle aged individuals, I wanted to see if these cognitive improvements stemming from exercise could also be made by older subjects.
In a study conducted from 2004-2007, 138 subjects above the age of 50 were randomly placed on an at-home, 24-week fitness regimen. After actively participating in their fitness routine for six months, the cognitive abilities and brain function of each individual were documented for an additional 18 months. At the study’s conclusion, researchers determined that the participants who actively followed their assigned fitness regime provided “modest” cognitive developments and also were less likely to develop dementia.
In summary and based on my findings from the analyzed research studies, I believe that exercise is a valuable tool for sharpening both the human body and the human brain. Because cognitive function and ability can be visibly increased due to physical activity alone, I feel as if there is substantial evidence supporting my alternative hypothesis, that exercise can improve brain function.