What to Do If You Still Haven’t Started Exercising This Year

There's a type of activity that protects the brain better than others

A backpacker in an open field.
Believe it or not, brisk walking is a great exercise for your brain.
Dougal Waters/Getty Images

According to the author of a new study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, people who spend “even small amounts of time [doing] more vigorous activities” — like brisk walking, biking or jogging — register “higher cognition scores,” as CNN reported.

It’s the latest in a mountain of research confirming that exercise isn’t just dynamite for the body, but protective for the brain, too.

And you don’t need to be regularly lighting up Strava leaderboards in order to reap the benefits. Researchers at University College London’s Institute of Sport, Exercise and Health found that as little as six to nine minutes of daily vigorous exercise has a tangible impact on a variety of executive functions, including planning, organization and memory.

It’s a vote of confidence for the surging short workouts movement, and a reminder that you don’t necessarily need to cordon off certain days of the week for extensive exercise. Instead, you might consider reassessing the frequency or intensity of your “movement patterns” throughout the day.

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Other researchers have championed the merits of exercise snacking over the last few years (also called bite-sized or fractionized exercise) as a method for reaching 150 minutes in Zones 4 or 5 of your heart rate a week — that’s anywhere over 80% of the heart’s maximum. Split that number across seven days, and you’re looking at just 20 minutes a day of vigorous activity.

This latest study is unique, though, in its focus on cognitive health, not just cardiovascular health. It’s more apparent than ever that when we make a point to move, we perform better — our brains are clearer and calmer, more focused and more energetic.

It’s something to chew on this year, and especially if you’ve felt incapable of getting a fitness routine off the ground just yet. You do not have to buy a connected fitness machine, stuff four classes into every week or sign up for a half-marathon. Those things are worthy pursuits and purchases, but only if that’s what you’re interested in, like buying yourself a violin or taking a trip to Argentina.

The exercise you “need” is not so expensive, or time-consuming, or intimidating. It can look like jogging, dog-walking, jumping rope, dancing or climbing stairs. It can happen in workout gear, or over your lunch break. The key is just to keep it consistent and intentional.

There were some not so great conclusions in the study, too, about how detrimental a sedentary lifestyle is. No surprises there. But don’t waste time fretting about sitting (FYI: the new smoking is still smoking), which can be self-defeatist, considering that 80% of contemporary jobs are sedentary.

Instead, learn to hunt and act on those tiny opportunities in the day where you can leave the desk. Your body will thank you. And evidently, so will your brain.

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