What You Need to Know: Recently, some scientists have begun to question whether the apparently beneficial effects of exercise on thinking might be a placebo effect. The benefits of aerobic exercise are not a placebo effect.
Background: Exercise seems to be good for the human brain, with many recent studies suggesting that regular exercise improves memory and thinking skills. Studying this issue is challenging, as there is no placebo for exercise and no way to blind people about whether they are exercising.
Study: An interesting new study asks whether the apparent cognitive benefits from exercise are real or just a placebo effect – that is, if we think we will be “smarter” after exercise, do our brains respond accordingly? Researchers at Florida State University (USA) came up with a clever way to evaluate this: They focused on expectations, on what people anticipate that exercise will do for thinking. If people’s expectations jibe closely with actual benefits, then at least some of the improvements are probably a result of a placebo effect (and not exercise).
Researchers asked half of the study population to estimate how much stretching and toning (three times per week) might improve various measures of thinking, including memory and multitasking. The other volunteers were asked the same questions, but about a regular walking program. In actual experiments, stretching and toning have little if any impact on cognitive skills. Walking, on the other hand, improves thinking. But the survey respondents believed the opposite, estimating that the stretching and toning program would be more beneficial for the mind than walking.
The results from the study suggest that the benefits of aerobic exercise are not a placebo effect. This study was small and involved a self-selected group of people who like completing online surveys. Still, the data suggest exercise really does change the brain and may improve thinking. We should now turn to 1) looking more closely, at a molecular level, at how exercise remodels the brain; and 2) get more of us to exercise. I’m Dr. Michael Hunter.
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Reference: NY Times 25 November 2014