There are a number of good reasons to exercise. Not only is it good for the booty, but it’s also good for the brain. The connection between exercise and the mind is well supported: Previous research shows that regular physical activity reduces stress, improves mood, helps regulate sleep cycles, and slows the decline in brain function that happens as part of the natural aging process. In a new study, published in the Journal of Neurology and Clinical Practice, researchers set out to determine exactly how much exercise you need to see such benefits — and it’s not as much as you might think.
The team of researchers, led by Joyce Gomes-Osman, an assistant professor in physical therapy and neurology at University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, analyzed 98 published studies that connect exercise and brain function to “identify consistent patterns of reported effects on cognition.” They found that people who exercised for at least 52 hours over six months showed the biggest improvements in global cognition, processing speed, attention span, problem solving, and the neurological skills that allow you to plan and complete tasks. On average, that comes to about an hour of exercise, three to four times a week.
What the authors of this study want to emphasize, though, is that the strongest correlation observed was when studies focused on the overall time people exercised, as opposed to the frequency or session duration. In other words, don’t beat yourself up if you have an off day — or week for that matter. It seems the cumulative effects of physical activity are what’s helping to sharpen and preserve your brain function.
As for what type of workouts strengthen the brain? This study looked at various types of low intensity exercises, including aerobics (think walking, biking, dancing), strength training, and mind-body moves like yoga and tai chi. But the best way to reap the mental rewards of exercise is to find a routine that works for you and stick with it. Whether that’s going to group fitness classes or hitting the treadmill while binge-watching your favorite show on Netflix, so be it.