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Exercise and cognition: it only takes a little bit!

The concept of exercise and its effect on the mind is not a new one – in fact, it’s at the least 2085 years old! Tullius Cicero stated in 65BC “It is exercise alone that supports the spirits, and keeps the mind in vigor”. (McCrory, 2007) While research is not always conclusive, it is safe to say there are plenty of studies that do support this assertion.

An increase in physical activity of only 10% has been shown to reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease significantly. (Koščak Tivadar, 2017) And for kids, an acute bout of walking has a beneficial effect on reading comprehension. (Hillman et al., 2009)

What type of exercise?

We are not entirely certain – but here are some good examples.

For the kids improving reading comprehension required 20 minutes of walking at 60% of estimated maximum heart rate. (Hillman et al., 2009) For older adults, the experts suggest a combination of aerobic and resistance exercise. (Koščak Tivadar, 2017)

But why would exercise help the brain?

We think it’s related to cardiovascular fitness – but this is not exactly clear.(Hillman et al., 2009) Humans evolved as physically active beings and it may be that an absence of exercise interrupts well-established functions within the brain. Here are some of the explanations we have so far:

  • Exercise increases brain levels of dopamine. We need dopamine for the proper functioning of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.
  • Indirect effects of exercise such as a reduction in chronic stress, oxidation and inflammation can reduce detrimental effects on the brain

While it only takes a little bit, guidance is important.

It is not enough to simply say, “you need to start exercising.” Brief advice from a doctor does not have a demonstrable effect on sustained levels of physical activity. (Lawlor & Hanratty, 2001) Positive interactions with a knowledgeable health care professional could make a difference – each individual has their own barriers to exercise participation and it takes skill and great communication skills to break these down.

That’s where you step in!


Hillman, C. H., Pontifex, M. B., Raine, L. B., Castelli, D. M., Hall, E. E., & Kramer, A. F. (2009). The effect of acute treadmill walking on cognitive control and academic achievement in preadolescent children. Neuroscience.

Koščak Tivadar, B. (2017). Physical activity improves cognition: possible explanations. Biogerontology.

Lawlor, D. A., & Hanratty, B. (2001). The effect of physical activity advice given in routine primary care consultations: A systematic review. Journal of Public Health Medicine.

McCrory, P. (2007). Cheap solutions for big problems? British Journal of Sports Medicine.







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