Exercise your way to better memory, focus, sleep, and more

You’ve heard it at least 100 times—regular physical activity does wonders for your health. It can help you maintain a healthy weight and dramatically reduce your risk for developing heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

But less well-known is the impact of physical activity on the mind. A new report released Friday by the Department of Health and Human Services presents the most up-to-date science linking exercise to improved cognition. Professor Charles Hillman, director of Northeastern’s Center for Cognitive and Brain Health, served on the advisory committee that produced the report, which will inform the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines, set to be released later this year.

The report’s findings show that a number of executive cognitive functions are positively influenced by regular physical activity, which is defined as between 150 and 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. These functions include our ability to plan and schedule actions, ignore distraction, stay focused, and multitask. Memory, processing speed, attention, and academic performance are all shown to benefit from physical activity, as well.

Beyond cognition, Hillman said exercise is also linked to better sleep quality, longer duration of sleep, and a reduction in the time it takes to fall asleep. The overarching term for these factors is sleep hygiene, which was found to be positively correlated with both regular physical activity as well as a single bout of moderate-to-vigorous exercise.

Brain health—a relatively new field—is a new focus in the 2018 scientific report, which comes a decade after the original Physical Activity Guidelines were released in 2008. Recent research has shown how exercise alters physical structures in the brain and the functions of those structures. “We didn’t have the ability to know this, because the imaging capabilities weren’t there until more recently,” explained Hillman, who holds joint appointments in the College of Science and the Bouvé College of Health Sciences.

The report also highlighted the many ways physical activity can improve mental health. People diagnosed with clinical depression can expect to experience fewer and less intense symptoms as a result of regular exercise. And those who are not clinically depressed, but experience periodic symptoms of depression or anxiety, would also likely see a reduction in those symptoms.

Improved cognitive function from exercise extends to individuals with a variety of conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and dementia. The report also described a positive correlation between exercise and better brain function in children ages 6 to 13.

Hillman has been studying brain health for more than 20 years, and said he wasn’t surprised by the findings used to develop the guidelines. “But I will tell you that my colleagues were surprised,” he added. “I don’t think the average person has any idea that physical activity influences executive function and brain structure.”