Just 2 Minutes of Exercise Could Boost Your Focus, Research Finds

woman swimming

Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • A literature review suggests exercise can increase our focus and problem-solving capacity for up to two hours.
  • Only a few minutes of movement is needed to see a difference. 
  • In order to be most effective, a recovery period is required between exercise and a mental task.

Struggling to focus while working from home? Taking a few minutes to exercise may be just what the doctor ordered. A systematic review published in the journal Translational Sports Medicine found that as little as two minutes of exercise can temporarily boost memory. Longer periods of exercise (around 60 minutes) can improve cognitive function for up to two hours afterwards.

The review examined 13 studies and 10 years' worth of data that showed the impact of movement on young adults ages 18 to 35. The forms of exercise measured were running, biking, and walking, and they were performed for up to an hour. The results showed that moderate and high intensity exercise improved memory, problem-solving, and concentration.

These changes can last up to two hours, and researchers noted that a short recovery—just five minutes—is an important transition that could help in tackling a mental task. 

This leads co-author Peter Blomstrand, MD, PhD, to conclude: “Exercise makes you smart.”

Exercise Changes Your Brain Functions 

Previous research on children has connected exercise to decreased gray matter thickness in the superior frontal cortex. Thinning in that area was associated with improved mathematical ability. Other studies have shown that exercise increases blood flow to the brain, leading to increased neuroplastic function in the hippocampus and better memory function in people of all ages. 

The benefits of exercise on mental health have been studied since the '70s, and it has been prescribed as a preventative and management tool for those diagnosed with mental health conditions like depression. While exercise is not a cure for mental health issues, it is often used as a means of controlling symptoms.

It is recommended that everyone get at least 150 minutes of exercise per week for physical health, and though there isn’t a set amount of time suggested for mental health, the belief is that even small amounts of physical activity can make a difference.

Exercise Engages the Body and Mind

Charles Scogna, Philadelphia-based personal trainer and steel mace coach, explains, "Exercise is like writing code for the human body. From simple to more advanced workouts, we have this great opportunity to step into a 'matrix,' in a way, and disconnect from the real world." For him, he finds that an intense training session often helps to enhance his mood and enables him to problem-solve and handle complex tasks more readily.

Scogna uses his specialty of steel mace training to illustrate a key point, "We focus on the idea of mustering what it takes to make the move correctly and completely. Moving with a steel mace and remembering left from right while also rotating, or planning while you are moving a heavy weight, or even being 100% connected head-to-toe in a simple plank, develops a deeper mental focus to win the day outside of the gym." 

Charles Scogna, PT

Focus on the idea of mustering what it takes to make the move correctly and completely. Moving with a steel mace and remembering left from right while also rotating...or even being 100% connected head-to-toe in a simple plank, develops a deeper mental focus to win the day outside of the gym.

Jeffrey Cohen, PsyD, is also a proponent of exercise, even in small doses, and says that many of his clients find it helpful for focus. He explains, “Twenty to thirty minutes a day of intense exercise can serve as an antidepressant and can rapidly increase positive feelings by activating the release of endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine.” Furthermore, he explains that anxiety decreases if you increase your heart rate to 70% of your maximum rate based on age.

Exercise and Mindfulness Go a Long Way

According to Cohen, adding mindfulness to your exercise routine may further help your focus. He explains, “Developing a daily practice of mindfulness helps you cultivate the skill of focusing the mind which you can then use when you are exercising, and this can improve performance.” 

Mindfulness is defined as “awareness that arises through deliberately paying attention in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” It is an intentional tool which can decrease stress and rumination, with or without exercise. The evidence of this can be seen in a study from the Netherlands, in which highly stressed employees began taking weekly exercise and meditation classes. These six weeks of classes decreased employee stress and prevented burnout.

Jeffrey Cohen, PsyD

Developing a daily practice of mindfulness helps you cultivate the skill of focusing the mind which you can then use when you are exercising and this can improve performance.

— Jeffrey Cohen, PsyD

To incorporate mindfulness into your workout, Cohen gives these recommendations:

  • Notice the breath and the physical sensations you are experiencing. This could be internal experiences or external cues like hearing and sight.
  • If your mind wanders, that’s ok. Just notice where it went and see if you can refocus and come back to what is happening inside of you and outside of you.
  • Multitasking is the opposite of being mindful, so consider leaving your headphones at home and just focus on the sounds of your body and your surroundings.
  • Notice if your breath changes as you exercise or if your muscles become tense. Try to notice without judgment. Just observe thoughts as thoughts and then bring yourself back to your bodily sensations and your surroundings.
  • You could choose to focus on a specific part of the body such as the foot as a way to stay anchored in the here and now. What sensations do you observe in your toes, on the sole of your foot, or up the ankle? This practice increases awareness, which could impact overall performance.

The most important advice, “Remember that the practice of mindfulness includes listening to your body and the information it is communicating. If you notice discomfort, maybe your body is telling you to slow down or stop for the day.”

What This Means for You

The benefits of exercise go beyond physical health, and it could be the key to better problem-solving. Even taking a break for a quick walk could be enough to help you focus on complex tasks at work or school. Adding mindfulness to that movement may be the catalyst to performing at your best. 

6 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Blomstrand P, Engvall J. Effects of a single exercise workout on memory and learning functions in young adults—A systematic review. Transl Sports Med. 2020:1–13. doi:10.1002/tsm2.190

  2. Chaddock-Heyman L, Erickson KI, Kienzler C, et al. The role of aerobic fitness in cortical thickness and mathematics achievement in preadolescent children. PLOS ONE. 2015;10(9):e0138166. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0134115

  3. Kandola A, Hendrikse J, Lucassen PJ, Yucel M. Aerobic exercise as a tool to improve hippocampal plasticity and function in humans: practical implications for mental health treatment. Front Hum Neurosci. 2016;10:373. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2016.00373

  4. Morgan WP. Anxiety reduction following acute physical activityPsychiatr Ann. 1979;9(3):36-45. doi:10.3928/0048-5713-19790301-06

  5. Teychenne M, White RL, Richards J, Schuch FB, Rosenbaum S, Bennie JA. Do we need physical activity guidelines for mental health: What does the evidence tell us?Mental Health and Physical Activity. 2020;18:100315. doi:10.1016/j.mhpa.2019.100315 

  6. de Bruin EI, Formsma AR, Frijstein G, Bögels SM. Mindful2Work: effects of combined physical exercise, yoga, and mindfulness meditations for stress relieve in employees. A proof of concept study. Mindfulness (N Y). 2017;8(1):204-217. doi:10.1007/s12671-016-0593-x