Dr David Moreau says you don’t need much time in your day to exercise your body and your brain.
Dr David Moreau doesn’t buy the excuse that we don’t have time for exercise.
His Early Career Research Excellence Award from the Royal Society Te Apārangi was for his research into the benefits of short bursts of high-intensity exercise. It shows just ten minutes a day is all we need to keep our brain and body functioning.
It seems for once fitness crazes are getting it right. High-Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT as it’s known, is pretty mainstream these days and David’s research shows HIIT’s benefits include our ability to plan, focus attention and remember instructions.
“We’ve known for a long time that exercise is beneficial to the brain,” says David, a senior lecturer in psychology in the Faculty of Science.
“It helps cognitive function and mental health, including conditions like depression. But for a long time people have thought the best way to get exercise was to do it for a long period of time at moderate intensity. That’s not necessarily so.”
What – all those hour-long aerobics classes in leg warmers were a waste of time?
“Labs across the world are now showing that high-intensity exercise – in just ten minutes a day – has major benefits. It’s also great for the time-starved.”
But you’re not really going to make yourself fit by doing ten minutes a day are you?
“Well, yes. Studies show that with high-intensity regimens, your body doesn’t just work out while you’re doing the exercise. It’s burning energy afterwards. The muscles are sore and need to get rid of the lactates, your metabolism increases for an entire day – even a couple of days. You actually burn more calories than you would after aerobic exercise. Afterwards, you’re recovering for quite a bit of time and this plays a role in getting you fit.”
David’s research has mainly looked at the benefits of HIIT in adults up to the age of 40, but shows high-intensity exercise has advantages in younger and older people.
“You may have to adapt the workouts to your actual fitness level as you age, so they still remain at a high intensity but not an intensity that might be dangerous.”
He says if your knees are blowing out and your body is generally falling to bits, HIIT can be perfect.
“High-intensity training is easier on your body than aerobic exercise where you may be running for a long period and it’s hard on the joints. You get a similar workout with high-intensity in a very short period.”
You can even do HIIT in a pool.
“Olympic swimmers train like that a lot,” says David. “They sprint and then recover for a while and sprint again. The average person can do something similar.”
Some of David’s research has been with school children and it’s shown HIIT is very effective in getting those little brain cogs whirring.
“We published a study where we had this short workout video running in schools. In just ten minutes you prepare your students to be more alert and ready to learn.
“Typically, we would encourage teachers to do the ten minutes’ exercise with their classes at the beginning of the day.”
He says feedback was great and what also occurred was better cohesion between the students.
“They were sharing the moment, laughing, improving and encouraging each other. There are a whole bunch of things that come into play; it’s a social aspect as well as a physiological.”
Exercises for the children included squat jumps and jumping jacks. They were encouraged to go as hard as they could for bursts of 20-30 seconds and then rest for 20-40 seconds. Upbeat music helped them along as they followed the movements on a big screen.
“In some of the schools we also equipped children with Fitbits so we could see the physiological benefits were actually happening.”
David says even children with lower fitness levels showed big improvements.
“They’re the ones who benefit the most. HIIT sessions act as a real equaliser too – people go as hard as they are capable of. There’s no competition. They all have the same opportunities to exercise and the fitter ones just push themselves a bit harder.”
David says popular exercise franchises like F45 and CrossFit that adopt these concepts, or programmes like Fast Exercise, are attractive because they reduce the boredom factor.
“One of the big reasons people stop exercising is they’re getting bored with their workouts. But these kinds of routines change things up – there’s a range of things to try.”
David says the other way to keep going is to just have HIIT in your arsenal a few times a week.
“Then do something else at the weekend that you enjoy.”
David’s first language is French. He was born in France, went to University in Canada when he was 23 and at 26 went to Princeton University in New Jersey for his postdoctoral years. He came to Auckland in 2015. In July, it will be two years since he’s seen his family, thanks to the pandemic. He’s been keeping his mind off that with his research.
As well as studying physical workouts, David, who runs the Brain Dynamics Lab, is interested in brain-training workouts. Researchers are exploring how the brain changes after such workouts.
“Kids often have a very rich environment, so any brain training needs to be different from what they’re already experiencing, to elicit any kind of gain. The plus side is that their brains are very plastic so you can capitalise on that plasticity to try and change things for the better.”
“When it comes to adults, the more we age, the more we become experts at what we do. While that makes our lives easier at work, we may not be challenging ourselves. What we know from the evidence is that brain challenges are unlikely to be a magic pill that works for you and for everyone else all the time.”
“Your brain operates better with all the things we actually know about – a healthy blend of exercise, cognitive stimulations like challenges, and even a good social life. Sleep is very important, healthy foods, all those things. It’s about finding what works for you.”
He says there’s a popular perception that people only use about 20 percent of their brains but it’s difficult to prove that.
“We’re using our entire brains all the time. Sure, if you don’t get enough sleep your cognitive abilities decline quite drastically but it’s short-lived until you get better sleep.”
David says cognitive training, to improve a person’s working memory, can create benefits even for the elderly.
“There are lots of studies that have found it’s probably more effective in older adults, because their working memory may be declining and training can potentially slow that decline.”
“If they’re in a retirement home, for example, the social environment might not be as stimulating or challenging as life was before, so they can really benefit from it.” Mindfulness also seems to be a trend, and is really just good old-fashioned meditation.
“There are people who meditate just ten minutes a day, just like those high-intensity workouts we described, and get some benefits especially if they have a very stressful life. Like anything, if we want to see any kind of tangible cognitive benefits though, we may have to wait for a little while.
“In the Brain Dynamics Lab, we look at whether changes are the result of things we do naturally or as a result of interventions, such as interventional brain training exercises or mindfulness interventions.”
“What we’re realising is there’s no generic intervention that works for everyone. Things need to be tailored to individuals because although we have a high degree of similarity, we’re also all very different from each other.”
– Denise Montgomery
– Cover photo: Elise Manahan
This article first appeared in April 2021 UniNews