Stuck in the office all day? A few lunchtime laps of the stairs can help your brain just as much as a long walk or bike ride, a Kiwi researcher has found.
That's the upshot of a new meta-analysis of 28 studies from here and overseas, which examined the link between exercise and cognitive functions like planning, multi-tasking and remembering instructions.
"While the idea of exercising intensely for short periods has gained a lot of traction in recent years, the link between a shorter bout of exercise and things like our ability to pay attention or memorise things has never been well understood," said Dr David Moreau, of the University of Auckland's School of Psychology.
"Our analysis over all these studies has found that high-intensity exercise does provide improvement to brain function in a similar way to longer periods of exercise."
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High-intensity exercise was generally regarded as working out at two-thirds of your maximum heart rate – and those shorter exercise periods explored in the research generally ranged from one to 20 minutes.
In contrast, low-intensity exercise could be walking, jogging, or cycling at a relatively slow pace, usually for more than 30 minutes.
Beyond well-known benefits for fitness and heart health, the study suggested high-intensity exercise could also be the key to healthier brains and sharper minds.
The benefits of short bursts of exercise were small but significant and consistent across age groups, gender and fitness levels.
Generally beneficial effects lasted up to about 10 minutes after exercise, although effects lasted slightly longer in some studies.
Moreau said the findings were especially relevant for schools and workplaces where people were generally having to be sedentary for most of the day.
"One of the biggest barriers to exercise is that we don't have the time, or we tell ourselves we don't have the time, but this study shows all you need is a few minutes, perhaps repeated a few times a week."