Hearts and minds

The cognitive benefits of exercise are no secret to anybody who has been for a good run, or spent an hour in the gym lifting weights. But research from the University of Auckland’s Brain Dynamics Research Lab suggests those same ‘brain gains’ can be made with a short burst of high intensity exercise, offering a new tool in the war against the mid-afternoon workday slump.

Dr David Moreau, principal investigator at the Brain Dynamics Lab, says scientists have long known that aerobic exercise multiplies the number of new neurons created in the brain—most significantly in the hippocampus, which has a major role in memory, spatial awareness and learning ability.

“A long time ago, people found out that when we exercise you form new neurons. Those are findings that were documented in rats and mice first—when you give rats a running wheel in their cage, they have a tendency to run a lot and for a long time. And the idea is that this is kind of the equivalent of aerobic exercise.”

So when research in the field of sport science suggested that high intensity interval training (HIIT) may have equivalent physiological effects to time-consuming aerobic training, Moreau’s team began to wonder if that result could be extrapolated to neurological responses.

“We asked, ‘can we match the neurological benefits that we usually get with aerobic exercise with high intensity training?’ And the short answer is that yes, you can. What we found is that in just 10 minutes you can actually raise your alertness level and perform better under a whole range of cognitive tasks.”

The findings have significant implications for the field of organisational psychology. Moreau, who lectures on the University of Auckland’s Master of Organisational Psychology programme, says that employees are often time poor, and the challenge of fitting an aerobic workout and the requisite shower into a workday means many people forgo exercise entirely. This has effects not only on their physical health and wellbeing, but their cognitive capacity and ability to learn and process information too.

“In a work context, if you need to exercise for an hour, then it’s a big chunk of your day that’s gone. But you could fit in that 10 minutes as a way to wake yourself up and restart your brain a little bit for what is coming in the afternoon.”

Moreau recommends HIIT to his own students, saying that just as organisations can benefit from cognitively enhanced employees, the stress of exam preparation can be dissipated in just a short burst of intense activity.

“And just as you’re going to be burning sugar and fat for quite a while after the workout itself, the cognitive benefits will remain too.”

To find out more about the possibilities of a postgraduate science degree at the University of Auckland, visit science.auckland.ac.nz/pg

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