Research from the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health , involving more than 4,000 people, found a link between moderate- to vigorous-intensity activity and a boost in memory and cognitive processing time. The same didn’t hold true for low-intensity exercise.
Adding just 10 minutes of more vigorous intensity to your rides or other workouts could offer these big brain benefits.
Linking exercise to better brain function isn’t exactly new information—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that regular physical activity can lead to clearer thinking, better problem-solving, and stronger emotional balance. But research is ongoing when it comes to how much is necessary and, especially, the intensity you should strive to hit to gain the most mind benefits.
Now, a recent study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health may hold those answers. Researchers tracked data from about 4,500 men and women in their mid-40s in the U.K. who wore activity monitors for up to seven days and at least 10 consecutive hours per day. Participants also took several cognitive tests that assessed verbal memory —like being able to recall words they’d heard or read earlier—and executive function, which includes how quickly they processed information.
Researchers selected a 24-hour movement block and compared it to cognition scores, with a particular emphasis on the effects of intensity level. They found that moderate and vigorous physical activity seemed to be best for working memory and mental processes such as organizing info, but those same effects didn’t hold true for light-intensity activity.
“This was a novel approach to pinpoint whether moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity was critical for cognitive health in midlife,” according to the study’s first author, John Mitchell, Ph.D.(c), researcher in the Primary Care and Population Health department at University College London.
He told Bicycling that because researchers only looked at one point in time, it’s not possible to determine cause and effect—for example, if you ramp up the intensity of your rides, it’s not yet clear how quickly your brain will respond. However, Mitchell added that the results imply even minimal changes in daily activity could have larger consequences for cognition.
In fact, the study points out that swapping out just six minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity activity with other behaviors, like low-intensity exercise or sedentary time, could be detrimental to these cognitive measures.
In terms of how intensity is determined, the researchers used accelerometers around participants’ thighs. But Mitchell emphasized you don’t need a device to figure it out for yourself.
“Moderate to vigorous activity is, broadly considered, any activity that elevates your heart rate and makes you feel warmer, which can range from a longer stair climb to jogging for the bus,” he said.
The CDC’s examples for moderate exercise include brisk walking, while vigorous exercise could be:
The recommendation from the current Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week and two days of muscle-strengthening activity weekly. So you can also aim to target those numbers.
One aspect of research that has yet to be fully discovered in the brain-exercise connection is the mechanism, added Mitchell.
“There’s an overarching mechanism, however, known as cognitive reserve which implicates physical activity as just one of many healthy lifestyle behaviors that may help to build up more complex cognitive pathways through life,” he said. “These may provide some resilience from the natural decline in cognition during the latter half of life. But in general, the physiological mechanisms appear largely elusive.”
What is clear, he added: Move more, increase your intensity at least a few times per week, and you may see a brain boost , including your memory and processing, as a result.