Cognitive Fitness Chapter 6 – Exercise and Physical Activity – Don’t be a couch potato!

Our latest research looks at the factors that most impact our cognitive performance – so individuals and organisations can understand and adopt best practices to get everyone’s brain in peak condition. Last time we looked at the importance of getting enough quality sleep… this time we are concentrating on exercise and the benefits of an active lifestyle!

Why is exercise and physical activity important?

Exercise and physical activity has long been thought to improve cognitive performance both in the short term and in relation to brain functioning in later life. This is borne out by a number of research studies that report significant effects of exercise on measured cognitive performance.

There is a substantial body of research related to the effects of a single session of exercise on cognitive performance. The premise underlying this is that physiological changes in response to exercise have implications for cognitive function. Findings are mixed, but researchers have generally concluded that there is a small but positive effect on mental performance.
We also found that aerobic physical activity and Tai Chi showed potential to enhance cognitive functions (in particular executive functioning) in older adults.

Finally, some recent studies are suggesting that regular exercise promotes brain cell growth.

If you exercise regularly, can you be a couch potato the rest of the time?

Physical activity in general has also demonstrated to have a (small) positive effect on cognitive performance across all the domains (memory, attention, executive function and reaction time/speed), although most of the scientific research concerns the potential for physical activity to prevent or delay late-life cognitive decline.

What has become clear is that even if you take part in exercise activities, this doesn’t mean you can be sedentary the rest of the time and “get away with it”! NHS guidance suggests taking an active break from sitting every 30 mins (even just 1-2 mins). This applies even if you exercise regularly, as “too much sitting” is an independent risk factor for health.

How much exercise do we need?

Our research on cognition didn’t determine a specific length of activity for our brains, but we know that the general recommendation is for 150 mins a week, which can be broken up into a number of shorter periods. It is hard to be definitive about this – the general premise is that some is better than none, and as we know that activity has a small positive impact on our cognitive performance, this has to be a win-win.

Ways to increase your level of activity

Realising that activity levels are important for both physical and brain performance should spur you on to make some changes if you aren’t too fit or active currently. Setting small goals and increasing steadily should be achievable – here are some thoughts:

  1. Think about making exercise a habit – plan it as you would any other activity – get your things ready in advance, take part in the activity, then have a nice reward! Creating a “habit loop” including a tangible reward makes it more likely your brain will feel the behaviour is worthwhile (“improved cognitive performance” is unlikely to be an attractive enough reward – so think of something that is powerful for you!).
  2. Go for a walk, jog or cycle at lunchtime – make this a daily or weekly habit. If you walk to get lunch… go the long way round!
  3. Do it with a buddy! Involve friends, colleagues and family to make activities more fun, sociable and enjoyable (you won’t stick at anything that you hate!)
  4. Count the number of steps you walk each day with a fitness monitor (they can also be set to prompt you to move if you’ve been still for too long at your desk!)
  5. Use the stairs whenever you can
  6. Set goals (even small ones) to keep you motivated – maybe share your goals and make a commitment with your buddy (apparently we’re more likely to stick to things we’ve committed to in front of witnesses!!)
  7. Reward yourself for achieving your goals with treats!
  8. Get into the habit of getting up and moving around when you finish a piece of work or a phone/conference call – rather than pressing on with the next item. A short break will provide activity, stimulate your circulation, provide a change of posture and change your focus.
  9. Make use of any facilities you have onsite – use the gym, take part or encourage your employer to set up exercise classes – and go with your colleagues – it’s another way to get to know people better!


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Are walking meetings on the agenda where you work?

Having “walking meetings” is another way to provide more activity and a different focus for your discussion with a colleague. Clearly the practicality of this depends on the office layout and workplace design. Also, one must consider how much distraction you might deliver to other colleagues – but you also have the opportunity to walk outside the office – potentially giving you fresh air and a change of perspective as well.

So next time you want to talk to a colleague and don’t want to be overheard, or there is a need to get some space from people or tensions in the office – invite your colleague to walk around the block with you. If you have a park nearby and it isn’t raining, you can gain another change of scene as part of the session. It needn’t make the meeting any longer – and could deliver some positive benefits. Give it a try!

And finally, instead of emailing people in the office – go and see them or meet for breakfast, coffee (or water!). This also helps develop good working relationships with colleagues (for more on this, take a look at our blog on social cohesion).


Give your brain a great day – keep active and get some exercise!

Next time we’ll tell you all about the fifth factor – caffeine, so pick up an espresso!

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