Working out in the morning helps improve cognitive function throughout the day, say researchers
10/11/2019 // Ralph Flores // Views

A recent study from Australia found that morning workouts can greatly improve working memory in older adults. In the paper, which was published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine, the researchers discussed whether moderate-intensity exercises can improve cognition in older adults and whether adding light-intensity walking breaks can further their brain-boosting effects.

A collaboration between the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute and The University of Western Australia, the study also revealed how the brain responds to exercise, including that with walking breaks, and how the two can enhance distinct aspects of cognition.

The team recruited 65 older adults with normal cognitive function for the study. The participants were males and females aged 55 to 80 who were either overweight or obese at the time of the study and had sedentary lifestyles. The researchers then divided the participants into three groups and assigned them specific tasks:

  • SIT (control): eight hours of uninterrupted sitting
  • EX + SIT (exercise + sitting): one hour of sitting, followed by a moderate-intensity walk on a treadmill for 30 minutes, and 6.5 hours of uninterrupted sitting
  • EX + BR (exercise + breaks): an hour of sitting, followed by a moderate-intensity walk on a treadmill for 30 minutes, then 6.5 hours of sitting with three-minute breaks that involve light-intensity walking every 30 minutes

During this time, the researchers tested all aspects of cognition and concentration, namely:

The researchers also measured serum levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a protein involved in many important processes in the brain, such as the growth and survival of information-transmitting neurons. It is also associated with the brain's ability to change continuously, a process known as neuroplasticity.

The findings of the study were promising: Participants who engaged in exercise had higher BDNF levels throughout the study period than those who sat for eight hours straight. In particular, researchers noted that participants in both exercise groups (EX + SIT and EX + BR) showed improved brain function, albeit in different aspects. Those in the EX + SIT group had better executive function than the control group, while those in the EX + BR group had better working memory scores than the control group. Working memory refers to the brain's ability to hold and manipulate information over brief intervals.

According to Michael Wheeler, a physical activity researcher at the Baker Institute and a co-author of the study, these findings highlight the dangers of uninterrupted sitting, especially when it comes to brain function. The results also stress the need for older adults to do moderate-intensity exercises like brisk walking to improve their brain health. (Related: Regular exercise can keep dementia at bay – adding more hours reduces the brain’s aging process.)

The researchers also pointed out that since certain aspects of cognition respond differently to a given dose of exercise, it is possible to use specific exercise patterns to target specific outcomes.

“With an [aging] population which is looking to live healthier for longer, these studies are critical to people enjoying a productive and satisfying quality of life,” Wheeler added.

“This study highlights how relatively simple changes to your daily routine could have a significant benefit to your cognitive health. It also reveals that one day we may be able to do specific types of exercise to enhance specific cognitive skills such as memory or learning.”

Learn more ways to boost brain health at

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