Just 10 minutes of physical activity can increase brainpower for a short time afterward, according to a new study published in Neuropsychologia. The finding may be important for older people with limited abilities to exercise, say the authors, and for anyone looking to improve their performance on an upcoming mental task.
Previous research has suggested an association between consistent, long-term physical activity and better brain health over time. Other studies have found that exercising for at least 20 minutes can have a measurable and immediate effect on cognitive functioning. “We wanted to know if an even shorter exercise program, for people who might have orthopedic problems or other mobility issues, could still have a cognitive benefit,” says the study’s senior author Matthew Heath, professor of kinesiology at Western University in Canada.
To find out, Heath and his colleagues gave 14 healthy young adults an eye-movement test designed to challenge parts of the brain that deal with executive functions, such as decision making, problem solving and inhibition. They were then asked to either sit and read a magazine, or to ride a stationary bike at a moderate-to-vigorous pace, for 10 minutes. Soon afterward, they repeated the eye-movement test a second time.
Scores for people in the reading group did not change significantly from the first to the second test. But for people in the bike group, reaction times improved by up to 50 milliseconds—with no drop in accuracy. That represents a 14% gain in cognitive performance, say the authors, and suggests that the exercise “provided a ‘boost’ to executive-related oculormotor control,” the wrote in their paper.