That’s the startling finding of a recent study, in which some older adults performed better on memory tests after 20 minutes of brisk pedaling on a stationary bike.
In other words, the benefits of exercise happen “a lot more quickly than people think,” co-author Michelle Voss, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Iowa, said in a press release. “You don’t have to think of it as training for a marathon. You can say, ‘I’m just going to be active today. I’ll get a benefit.'”
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In the study, 34 adults, ages 60 to 80, who were healthy, but not regularly active, rode a stationary bike for 20 minutes on two separate occasions — once at a fast pace, once at a slower pace — and were given a brain scan and a memory test before and after each session.
They then were divided into two groups, one that exercised three times a week at a low level for 50 minutes, the other for the same amount of time at a more intense pace.
Most of the participants in the 50-minute, regular exercise group showed mental benefits, based on scans and memory tests, but the Iowa researchers noted that the brain gains were no greater than the improvements shown from rigorous exercising a single time for 20 minutes.
Keep in mind, however, that the boost in thinking and memory from just one workout was temporary, lasting only a short while, the researchers wrote.
As previous studies have shown, long-term brain benefits may take regular exercise to improve brain function and make those benefits last. But in the short-run, even a little activity may help.
What you can do:
- Take a walk. Walk briskly for 10 minutes in one direction, turn around, walk 10 minutes back. Try for three times a week.
- Start slow, get faster. As you get fitter, push yourself a little more.
- Break it up if you have to. Can’t manage 20 minutes of exercise some days? Split it into two 10-minute sessions instead.