Exercise isn’t just good for your body.
In a 2011 review of the
literature published in the Journal
of Applied Physiology, psychologist
Michelle W. Voss, PhD, and
colleagues found growing
evidence that aerobic exercise
can help people develop and
maintain cognitive functioning
throughout their life span.
“It’s clear that exercise has a
positive effect on the body and
the brain,” says Voss, an assistant
professor of psychology at the
University of Iowa.
In childhood, the research
shows, physical activity
facilitates optimal cognitive
development. In contrast,
inactivity and reduced fitness are
associated with lower academic
achievement and lower scores
on neuropsychological tests. At
the age spectrum’s other end,
research largely supports the role
of physical activity and aerobic fitness in maintaining cognitive
function and preventing dementia in older adults.
What about young adulthood, such as the typical graduate
student years? There the evidence is less clear, although the
research that exists points to the same association between greater
aerobic fitness and better brain functioning.
The problem with studying exercise’s impact on young adults
is that they’re at their cognitive prime, so it’s harder to show a
difference between physically fit and unfit individuals, says Voss.
“You’re just not dealing with as
much variability overall with
young adults’ ability to do a task
well,” she explains. “You can’t
really see effects unless you push
the task to be really difficult.”
Studies that don’t do this often
don’t see an effect, she says.
In a 2013 literature review in
Psychonomic Bulletin & Review,
psychologist Liana Machado,
PhD, and student Hayley
Guiney of the University of
Otago in New Zealand also
found support for physical
activity’s role in keeping and even
improving cognitive function
Among young adults, this
review found that exercise did
have an impact on one key
area of cognitive functioning:
The dearth of evidence about exercise’s impact on young
adults doesn’t undermine the idea that young adults need exercise,
too, emphasizes Voss.
“Even though the effects are more subtle in young adulthood,
that doesn’t mean they won’t accumulate to a larger effect as the
person continues to develop,” she says.
— REBECCA A. CLAY
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