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How exercise supports your mental fitness

A healthy body is home to a healthy mind:sports activity can improve your cognitive performance. However, there are many different types of sports and a wide variety of exercises and workouts. What type and how much exercise keeps your mind in top shape? This is the question that researchers at the University of Basel and their colleagues at the University of Tsukuba in Japan have explored through a large-scale analysis of the scientific literature. They used this analysis to derive recommendations.

Coordinated sports are particularly effective

The research group with the collaboration of Dr. Sebastian Ludyga and Professor Uwe Pühse evaluated 80 individual studies to identify some key features. Endurance training, strength training or a combination of these components seem to improve cognitive performance. However, coordinated and challenging sports that require complex movement patterns and interaction with fellow players are significantly more effective. “Coordinating during a sport seems even more important than the total sport volume”, explains Ludyga.

A higher overall activity level does not necessarily lead to a correspondingly higher level of effectiveness for mental fitness. A longer duration per training unit promises a greater improvement in cognitive performance over a longer period of time.

All age groups benefit

Like our physical fitness, cognitive performance changes over the course of our lives. There is a lot of potential for improvement during childhood (cognitive development phase) and during old age (cognitive breakdown phase). However, the research group of the Department of Sport, Exercise and Health (DSBG) of the University of Basel was unable to find an indicator for the different levels of effectiveness of sports activities within the different age groups.

Moreover, sports activities from primary school to later life do not have to be fundamentally different to improve cognitive performance. Thus, different age groups can be combined for a common goal during sports. “This is already being done selectively with joint exercise programs for children and their grandparents,” says Pühse. Such programs could therefore be expanded further.

Intense sports sessions for boys and men

The same volume of sports activity has a different effect on the physical fitness of men and women, as we already know. However, the research group has now been able to verify this for mental fitness. Men therefore benefit more from sports activities.

Differences between the sexes are especially evident in the intensity of exercise, but not in the type of sport. A hard workout seems especially worthwhile for boys and men. Combined with a gradual increase in intensity, this leads to a significantly greater improvement in cognitive performance over a longer period of time.

The positive effect in women and girls, on the other hand, disappears if the intensity is increased too quickly. The results of the study suggest that they should choose low to moderate intensity sports activities if they want to improve their cognitive fitness.