Carried out by researchers at the University of Basel and the University of Tsukuba, the new analysis looked at 80 existing studies which had investigated the effect of endurance training, strength training or a mix of both on cognitive performance.
The findings, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, showed that although all sports can bring long-term benefits for cognitive performance, some sports appeared to have a bigger effect than others. Notably, sports which require a certain level of coordination and complex movements and interaction with other players appeared to be significantly more effective at improving cognition.
The researchers also found that although it might be expected that more exercise would bring bigger improvements in cognitive functioning, this was not necessarily the case, and doing longer exercise sessions only resulted in greater improvements if done over a long period of time.
"To coordinate during a sport seems to be even more important than the total volume of sporting activity," explains researcher Dr. Sebastian Ludyga. When it came to the intensity of exercise, this also boosted cognitive performance, but unfortunately for women, only in men. Although the type of sport didn't seem to make a difference, the team noted, gradually increasing the intensity of a workout leads to a significantly greater improvement in cognitive performance over a longer period of time for boys and men, while for girls and women this positive effect disappears if the intensity is increased too quickly. The researchers say their findings suggest that females should choose low to medium intensity exercise if they want to increase their cognitive fitness.
However, the good news for all is that exercise was also found to be beneficial at every age. In addition, as our cognitive performance changes over our lifetime, the researchers suggested that there may be more potential for improvement during two particular life stages: childhood (called the cognitive development phase) and old age (cognitive degradation phase). Although there was no evidence for this in the current analysis, previous studies have found that children who exercise perform better at school, while in old age exercise has been shown to help slow the rate of cognitive decline and possibly reduce the risk of dementia.