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If you’re interested in becoming smarter, you don’t really have to invest in the many vitamins, herbs, and “cognitive training” software programs and seminars you see advertised on TV or on the Internet. All you have to do is go for a long walk three times a week.

That’s the message of a research study published recently in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review and presented at the 2013 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston. The study is a review of research conducted to determine the relationship between regular exercise and improved cognitive functioning. It included tests performed on children, young adults, and older adults.

The findings show that regular aerobic exercise (as little as briskly walking for an hour three times a week) can not only add years to your lifespan, it can significantly improve your brain functioning. The study provides strong evidence of exercise-related improvements in a variety of activities, including task switching, selective attention, inhibition of inappropriate responses, working memory capacity, and updating capability (i.e., the ability to learn new things).

As study author and University of Illinois Professor Art Kramer suggests, the benefits of exercise are both physical and mental: “Populations throughout the industrialized world are becoming increasing[ly] sedentary as a result of the changing nature of work and leisure activities. As a result of these societal changes…diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, osteoporosis and some cancers are increasing. Physical activity serves to reduce susceptibility to these diseases. Increased physical activity also has direct and relatively rapid effects on cognition and brain health.”

Another study published in the online journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience has reported similar findings. In this study, participants’ cognition, resting cerebral blood flow, and cardiovascular fitness were measured during and after a six-week period of aerobic training. The blood flow measurements allowed the researchers to see which areas of the brain were changing and improving as a result of the exercise. Lead author of the study Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth, says, “This research shows the tremendous benefit of aerobic exercise on a person’s memory and demonstrates that aerobic exercise can reduce both the biological and cognitive consequences of aging.”

Dr. Chapman expands upon these findings, emphasizing their importance to the public: “Physical exercise may be one of the most beneficial and cost-effective therapies widely available to everyone to elevate memory performance. These findings should motivate adults of all ages to start exercising aerobically.”

So take heed, and take to your feet. Whatever your age, adding regular aerobic exercise to your life three times a week can significantly improve your physical health.—and it may make you smarter at the same time.


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