A little goes a long way: How even moderate physical activity improves cognitive performance

Better healthcare
Faculty of Health Sciences
Research and innovation
Health and wellness

By Bernard Rizk

Media Relations Officer, External Relations, University Of Ottawa

People walking their dog
That leisurely walk around the block after dinner may do you more good than you thought.

In a recent study, the first to use a genetic approach to demonstrate the effect of physical activity on cognitive health, uOttawa researchers found that both vigorous and moderate physical activity boost cognitive functioning, but that moderate exercise had an even greater impact than initially thought. 

“The cognitive benefits of moderate physical activity were found to be 50% greater than those of vigorous physical activity. Therefore, it is not necessary to push oneself to exhaustion to obtain the cognitive benefits of regular physical activity,” says senior author Matthieu P. Boisgontier, associate professor of rehabilitation sciences at the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Ottawa and principal investigator at Bruyère Research Institute, which supervised the study.

Researchers looked at the two-way relationship between physical exercise and cognitive function, using data from two large-scale genome-wide association studies and a technique called Latent Heritable Confounder Mendelian Randomization (LHC-MR). The project was conducted through an international collaboration between Canada, Switzerland (University of Geneva, University of Lausanne and University of Fribourg), and the United States (University of Arizona, University of Southern California and Massachusetts General Hospital) involving 350,000 participants.

Matthieu P. Boisgontier

“The cognitive benefits of moderate physical activity were found to be 50% greater than those of vigorous physical activity”

Matthieu P. Boisgontier

— Associate professor of rehabilitation sciences the Faculty of Health Sciences at uOttawa

“Our results are consistent with studies that have demonstrated the effect of exercise on the release of a protein (BDNF) involved in the creation of new neurons, new connections between these neurons and new blood vessels to feed these neurons. This effect explains the mechanisms underlying the beneficial effects of physical activity on cognitive functioning,” says Boisgontier.

These results offer fresh proof that any level of exercise has a positive effect on brain health and factors such as memory, problem-solving, attention span and reaction time.

The study, Genetic insights into the causal relationship between physical activity and cognitive functioning, was published in the science journal Nature