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It’s hard to be super-active if you’ve got a desk job. But we should make more of an effort to move about, because just 20 minutes a day can have huge benefits to the way your brain works.

Got a work assignment you really need to nail? Struggling to complete a complex task? Then it might be worth lacing up your trainers and heading out for a mind-clearing run before your deadline because, according to a new study, exercise can ‘significantly improve’ mental performance.

Last year, researchers at Asics looked into the impact that exercise had on mood and alertness. Strong Women even took part in their study and found that even a week-long break from regular exercise had a profoundly negative impact on mental wellbeing and energy; staying static was found to have the same negative effect as a week of insomnia.  

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More recently, the team has been looking to see if exercise can help us to pass exams or excel at work via boosted brainpower.

To find out, Asics invited a bunch of competitive chess players and esports gamers from around the world to engage in a four-month exercise programme designed by runner-turned-international coach Andrew Kastor. They found that after the four-month period, participants’ international gaming rankings improved by a whopping 75%. Cognitive function improved by 10% and concentration was boosted by 33%. Meanwhile, anxiety levels fell by 43%.

In fact, the study found exercise to be as effective at boosting brain function as learning a second language or learning a new musical instrument. 

Chess players and Egamers were put through their fitness paces for four months.

The exercise programme in question included medium-impact cardio and strength training, and increased the gamers’ exercise capacity to 150 minutes a week (the recommended minimum). Professor Brendon Stubbs then measured their mental performance with a range of cognitive tests and wellbeing questionnaires over the four months.

“We all know that exercise is good for our mental and physical health but the impact on cognitive functioning has been less explored. We wanted to examine the effects of exercise on people who depend on their cognitive abilities – competitive mind gamers. Our results show significant improvements in their cognitive functioning, including concentration levels and problem-solving abilities,” he explains.

So, what is it about relatively modest amounts of exercise that is so beneficial to brain function? Dr Stubbs says that movement stimulates cell growth in the brain and rapidly increases blood flow to the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, mechanisms that “enable us to better retain memories, process information and problem solve quickly”.  

How much exercise do you need to do?

Perhaps most exciting is the fact that this study wasn’t conducted on super-fit individuals. “Many of the gamers couldn’t jog for longer than a minute at the start of the study,” says coach Kastor. While 150 minutes might sound a lot, it’s actually quite doable if you cut it down to doing 30 minutes, five days a week, or 21 minutes every day.

In other words, we can all stand to benefit from moving more. It doesn’t have to be much: a 20-minute morning walk or jog and a 10-minute dance at lunchtime. Maybe it’s cycling to work or trying a free 30-minute YouTube bodyweight session before dinner. The point is to get that blood flowing to the brain to feel calmer, more focused and ready to tackle whatever mental obstacles come our way. 

Images: Getty

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