Study Results Show Link Between Moderate or Vigorous Physical Activity and Brain Power

When replaced with just 6 to 7 minutes daily of light-intensity exercise or sedentary behavior, data show poorer cognitive performance.

The time spent in moderate and vigorous physical activity (MVPA) every day is linked to mid-life brain power, according to the results of a study published online in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

Investigators saw that these intensity levels were best for working memory and mental processes, including organization and planning. When replaced with 6 to 7 minutes of light-intensity activity or sedentary behavior every day, investigators found it was associated with poorer cognitive performance.

In other studies, MVPA was linked to health. However, investigators did not include time spent asleep. Investigators in this study adopted a compositional approach to see if MVPA was relative to all other daily movement behaviors for mid-life cognitive performance.

Investigators gathered data from individuals in the 1970 British Cohort Study, which comprised individuals born in England, Scotland, and Wales in 1970 whose health was tracked throughout their life. From 2016 to 2018, 8581 individuals, aged 46 to 47 years, were asked to fill in detailed background, health, and lifestyles questionnaires, and to wear an activity tracker for up to 7 days and for at least 10 consecutive hours a day.

Participants took cognitive tests for executive function, which included processing accuracy and speed and verbal fluency delayed and immediate word recall tasks. The scores for each test were totaled to produce an overall global score for both categories.

For those who wore the activity tracker, 2959 individuals were excluded because of device errors, insufficient wear time, or failing to complete the questionnaires.

The analysis of the activity tracker data showed that individuals had an average of 5 hours and 42 minutes of light intensity and physical activity, 51 minutes of MVPA, 9 hours and 16 minutes of sedentary behaviors, and 8 hours and 11 minutes of sleep over a 24-hour period.

The time spent in MVPA relative to other types of behavior was positively associated with cognitive performance after adjusting for educational attainment and workplace physical activity. However adjustments for health issues wakened the associations.

Sedentary behavior relative to light physical activity and sleep were also positively associated with cognitive performance, which investigators said could be linked to greater engagement in cognitive stimulating activities, such as reading or working.

They also found that the associations were stronger for executive function than for memory.

Additionally, individuals in the upper half of cognitive performance scores had more time in MVPA and sedentary behaviors and less time sleeping, Individuals in the lowest 25% of scorers had the most light-intensity physical activity.

Investigators reallocated time from 1 component to another, minute by minute, to estimate the impact joint associations that movement and cognition could have on global cognitive performance scores. They found that there were increases in scores after MVPA displaced other activities.

Cognition showed a 1.31% improvement in ranking compared with the sample average improvement after as little as 9 minutes of sedentary activities was replaced with more vigorous activities.

Furthermore, there was a 1.27% improvement from replacing gentle activities or 1.2% from replacing 7 minutes of sleep. The improvements increased with greater exchanges of time.

Sedentary behavior also increased cognition scores. However, it was only beneficial when substituting it for 37 minutes of light-intensity physical activity or 56 minutes of sleep.

Participants’ cognition rankings also declined by 1% to 2% after just 8 minutes of more vigorous activity was replaced by sedentary activities and continued to decline with greater declines in MVPA.


Mid-life moderate + vigorous physical activity quota associated with brain power. EurekAlert. News release. January 23, 2023. Accessed January 24, 2023.

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