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Active people score higher memory and reasoning tests

Exercise may help to keep the brain sharp, research suggests.  

German scientists analysed the fitness and MRI scans of more than 1,200 young, healthy adults.

They found those who could walk the furthest had better ‘structural integrity’ in the white matter of their brain, suggesting superior nerve transmission.

The fittest participants also scored higher on memory, reasoning and ‘sharpness’ tests, the University of Münster study found.   

Exercise has been shown to increase blood flow, and therefore oxygen, to the brain.  

Exercise may help to keep the brain sharp, research suggests (stock)

Writing in a commentary, Professor Peter Falkai, from the Munich Center for Neurosciences, said ‘This is an important study demonstrating a robust correlation between physical health and cognitive functioning in a large cohort of healthy, young adults. 

‘This was backed by changes in the white matter status of the brain supporting the notion that better macro-connectivity is related to better brain functioning. 

‘It stresses the importance of physical activity at all stages of life and as preliminary recent evidence suggests one can start improving physical health even in later life even if one has never trained before. 

‘These findings, however, need to be replicated in longitudinal studies and translated for the use in mental illness’. 

The relationship between physical fitness and ‘brain physiology’ has garnered a lot of attention in recent years, the researchers wrote in the journal Scientific Reports. 

Staying active has been shown to protect against dementia, stress and depression, however, it is unclear exactly why this occurs.

A better understanding could enable doctors to prevent ‘neuropsychiatric disorders’, the researchers wrote.

To learn more, they analysed the brain scans of 1,206 healthy volunteers who took part in the Human Connectome Projects. 

The participants, who had an average age of 28, underwent MRI scans for scientific research.

‘The great strength of this work is the size of the database,’ lead author Dr Jonathan Repple said. 

‘Normally when you are dealing with MRI work, a sample of 30 is pretty good, but the existence of this large MRI database allowed us to eliminate possibly misleading factors, and strengthened the analysis considerably.’

These ‘misleading factors’ may include weight, blood sugar levels, age and education, which can all influence brain health. 

The volunteers were also asked to walk as far as they could in two minutes, with their distance being recorded.

Cognitive tests determined the participants’ memories, reasoning skills, ‘sharpness’ and judgement. 

Results suggested the fittest volunteers had the healthiest brains and strongest cognitive skills.

‘This opens the possibility that increasing fitness levels may lead to improved cognitive ability, such as memory and problem solving, as well as improved structural changes in the brain,’ the researchers wrote.

Cognitive performance was worse in the less fit volunteers, despite them still being young and otherwise healthy. 

‘It surprised us to see that even in a young population cognitive performance decreases as fitness levels drops,’ Dr Repple said. 

‘We knew how this might be important in an elderly population which does not necessarily have good health, but to see this happening in 30 year olds is surprising. 

‘This leads us to believe that a basic level of fitness seems to be a preventable risk factor for brain health.’

The researchers hope to one day investigate whether an unfit person’s brain structure changes when they become active.

‘This type of study raises an important question,’ Dr Repple said. 

‘We see fitter people have better brain health, so we now need to ask whether actually making people fitter will improve their brain health.

‘Finding this out is our next step. There are some trials which point in that direction, but if we can prove this using such a large database, this would be very significant.’ 


To stay healthy, adults aged 19 to 64 should try to be active daily and should do:

  • at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity such as cycling or brisk walking every week and
  • strength exercises on 2 or more days a week that work all the major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms)


  • 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity such as running or a game of singles tennis every week and
  • strength exercises on 2 or more days a week that work all the major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms)


  • a mix of moderate and vigorous aerobic activity every week – for example, 2 x 30-minute runs plus 30 minutes of brisk walking equates to 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity and
  • strength exercises on 2 or more days a week that work all the major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms)

A good rule is that 1 minute of vigorous activity provides the same health benefits as 2 minutes of moderate activity.

One way to do your recommended 150 minutes of weekly physical activity is to do 30 minutes on 5 days every week.

All adults should also break up long periods of sitting with light activity.

Source: NHS 


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