With dementia on the rise, more people want to improve brain fitness as much as they do physical fitness. University of Basel researchers in Switzerland and University of Tsukuba researchers in Japan analyzed 80 studies on physical training’s cognitive benefits, highlighting differences by activity, gender and intensity.

First, the analysis showed that all types of exercise improve mental fitness. That said, sports calling for more coordinated movement patterns and greater interaction with others boost cognitive function significantly more than other endurance exercise, resistance training and mixed sport. Higher levels of coordinated activity with multiple players—as required in soccer or basketball, for example—provide more cognitive benefits than less complex activities, even when total volume of activity is lower.

Investigators found that gender differences in cognitive benefits were linked to intensity level, not sport type. Boys and men benefited more from hard workouts and derived further improvement from progressively designed and highly intense programs. Girls and women, in contrast, lost positive cognitive effects when intensity levels increased too quickly. Girls and women derived more cognitive benefits from low- to medium-intensity sporting activities and did not benefit from progressive increases in intensity beyond those levels.

More research is needed to further understand how gender differences, exercise type and training intensity affect executive function.

The study is available in Nature Human Behaviour (2020; 4 [6], 603–12).


See also: Gender Differences in Fitness and Brain Function