Exercise Provides Similar Cognitive Boost as Coffee Does, Study Suggests

20-minute moderate-intensity walks boost working memory just as well as coffee

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Exercise can boost working memory just like the caffeine in coffee does, a study published in Nature reported. An experiment showed that 20 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, like walking briskly, can boost cognition in a manner similar as a cup of coffee can. Caffeine has pros and cons—Here’s why.

Overview of cup of coffee
Leading experts say one to two five-ounce cups a day should be the limit for caffeine consumption from coffee. Photo by Billion Photos / Shutterstock

A recent study tested and compared working memory in people who engaged in moderate-intensity exercise for 20 minutes and in people who were given an equivalent boost from caffeine. “Results from the present study indicate that acute aerobic exercise and caffeine administration improved working memory accuracy in non-caffeine and caffeine users,” the study said. “Furthermore, acute aerobic exercise and caffeine administration demonstrated some utility in reducing caffeine withdrawal symptoms induced by a 12-hour caffeine deprivation period.”

Caffeine is a naturally occurring stimulant that comes in many forms, and as the study mentioned, frequent usage comes with withdrawal symptoms. Here’s more information.

The Skinny on Your Latte

“According to the FDA, caffeine naturally occurs in over 60 different plant species,” said Dr. Alyssa Crittenden, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “This includes cocoa beans used for chocolate, kola nuts used in soft drinks, and the almighty coffee bean. The majority of caffeine on the planet is consumed in coffee form; coffee consumption is followed by soda and tea in second and third place. Regardless of how you consume it, caffeine is a stimulant.”

As a stimulant, one of the benefits of caffeine is making people feel more awake. As the Nature-published study shows, it can also improve your working memory. Most people appreciate the alertness caffeine gives them.

“This alertness is due to the fact that caffeine is similar to a molecule called adenosine,” Dr. Crittenden said. “When adenosine is created in the brain, it binds to receptors and slows down nerve cell activity, which makes us sleepy. Your brain thinks caffeine is adenosine; it binds to the receptors because your brain thinks it’s actual adenosine, but it doesn’t activate them. It blocks them.”

In other words, caffeine tricks your adenosine receptors into accepting them, then it accelerates the nerve cell activity, which makes you feel more awake.

How Much Is Too Much?

Caffeine may help us feel alert; however, Dr. Crittenden said there are also negative side effects, which include feeling shaky, difficulty sleeping, an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, nausea, headaches, and dehydration. This leads us to ask: How much caffeine is too much?

“The FDA suggests that four to seven cups of coffee or more per day is likely too much,” she said. “The recommendation is one to two five-ounce cups of coffee each day, and just for comparison a typical grande cup of coffee from Starbucks contains 16 ounces. Mayo Clinic suggests that about 400 milligrams should be the daily limit.”

Dr. Crittenden added that drinking coffee daily alters your neurochemistry. Your brain cells build more adenosine receptors to compensate for the caffeine that floods them every day. More adenosine receptors means that a java junkie will have to drink additional caffeine to have the same affect as when they started. Taking caffeine away leads to withdrawal.

“Medical professionals say it only takes about a week to kick the habit; for some of us with especially strong addictions to caffeine, it might take up to two weeks to stop having symptoms of withdrawal,” she said. “During this time, as you’re detoxing, the number of adenosine receptors decreases as a response to less caffeine. Eventually, the receptors should reset to baseline levels and your addiction will be kicked.”

Dr. Alyssa Crittenden contributed to this article. Dr. Crittenden is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Dr. Alyssa Crittenden contributed to this article. Dr. Crittenden is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Medicine. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, San Diego.