Work Life Balance: Exercise Improves Brain Function

Written by LeAnn Thieman, CSP, December 11th, 2014

yogaExercise is proven to be good for our brains, improving memory and thinking skills (and is good for work life balance!). A new study asks whether the apparent cognitive benefits from exercise are real or just a placebo effect. If we think we will be “smarter” after exercise, do our brains respond accordingly?

While many studies suggest that exercise has cognitive benefits, those experiments all have had a notable scientific limitation: They did not use placebo. There is no placebo for exercise and no way to blind people about whether they are exercising. They know if they are walking or bicycling or not.

Scientists at Florida State University in Tallahassee and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign came up with a clever workaround. They decided to focus on expectations, on what people anticipate exercise will do for thinking. If their expectations coincide with the actual benefits, then at least some of those improvements are probably a result of the placebo effect and not exercise.

Recruiting 171 people through an online survey system, the researchers asked half of the volunteers to estimate by how much a stretching and toning program performed three times a week might improve various measures of thinking, including memory and mental multitasking. The other volunteers were asked the same questions, but about a regular walking program.

In actual experiments, stretching and toning generally have little if any impact on people’s cognitive skills. Walking, however, seems to substantially improve thinking ability.

But the survey respondents believed the opposite, estimating that stretching and toning exercises would be more beneficial for the mind than walking. The volunteers’ estimates of the predicted cognitive improvements from gentle toning averaged about a three on a scale from one to six. Estimates of benefits from walking were lower.

“The results from our study suggest that the benefits of aerobic exercise are not a placebo effect,” said Cary Stothart, a graduate student in cognitive psychology at Florida State University, who led the study.

If expectations had been driving the improvements in cognition after exercise, Mr. Stothart said, then people should have expected walking to be more beneficial for thinking than stretching. They didn’t, implying that the changes in the brain and thinking after exercise are physiologically genuine.

To learn ways to increase exercise, the physical, mental and spiritual health of your people and work life balance principles, visit SelfCare for HealthCare™. Contact me today to discuss how we can customize this program for your staff.

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