Newspaper article International New York Times

Does Physical Activity Really Make Us Smarter? ; Scientists Question Beneficial Effect of Exercise on Thinking

Newspaper article International New York Times

Does Physical Activity Really Make Us Smarter? ; Scientists Question Beneficial Effect of Exercise on Thinking

Article excerpt

Many recent studies suggest that regular exercise improves memory and thinking skills. But new study asks whether the apparent cognitive benefits from exercise are real or just a placebo effect.

Exercise seems to be good for the human brain, with many recent studies suggesting that regular exercise improves memory and thinking skills. But 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? The answer has significant implications for any of us hoping to use exercise to keep our minds sharp throughout our lives.

In experimental science, the best, most reliable studies randomly divide participants into two groups, one of which receives the drug or other treatment being studied and the other of which is given a placebo, similar in appearance to the drug, but not containing the active ingredient.

Placebos are important, because they help scientists to control for people's expectations. If people believe that a drug, for example, will lead to certain outcomes, their bodies may produce those results, even if the volunteers are taking a look-alike dummy pill. That's the placebo effect, and its occurrence suggests that the drug or procedure under consideration isn't as effective as it might seem to be; some of the work is being done by people's expectations, not by the medicine.

Recently, some scientists have begun to question whether the apparently beneficial effects of exercise on thinking might be a placebo effect. While many studies suggest that exercise may have cognitive benefits, those experiments all have had a notable scientific limitation: They have not used placebos.

This issue is not some abstruse scientific debate. If the cognitive benefits from exercise are a result of a placebo effect rather than of actual changes in the brain because of the exercise, then those benefits could be ephemeral and unable in the long term to help us remember how to spell ephemeral.

Studying this issue, however, is difficult. There is no placebo for exercise and no way to blind people about whether they are exercising. They know if they are walking or cycling or not.

So researchers at Florida State University in Tallahassee and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign came up with a clever workaround. They decided to focus on expectations, on what people anticipate that exercise will do for thinking. If people's expectations jibe closely with the actual benefits, then at least some of those improvements are probably a result of the placebo effect and not of exercise.

The scientists had seen this situation at work during an earlier study of video games and cognition. Past research had suggested that playing action-oriented video games improves players' subsequent thinking skills. …

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