Do Short Bouts of Physical Activity Affect Cognitive Function?

Here’s what a new study has found…

Physical activity may be all the craze nowadays, but actually, not many people work out on a global level.

The way the world works today almost sets us up for failure: most of us spend a big chunk of our waking hours sitting in offices and in front of computers, and when we’re relaxing by watching TV, for example, or doing another leisurely activity, we’re still being passive. 

In fact, despite all the perks of a dynamic life, the sedentary lifestyle is most prominent in industrialized countries, and many people suffer its consequences.

Research has shown that as a result of a lack of physical activity, many people end up developing cardiovascular diseases [1], musculoskeletal diseases [2], and even mental health problems [3].

Turns out, in today’s world, working out should become a conscious and deliberate activity, if you want to be healthier, feel better, and have better mental clarity.

Physical activity offers many benefits for both the body and the mind, however, a group of scientists from the University of Innsbruck in Austria wanted to focus strictly on the mind.

As working out is already known to positively influence the brain’s agility [4], they conducted a study to examine if short bouts of physical activity had any impact on cognitive function, especially in the context of taking a break during a busy day at work or school.

The Details

The primary goal of the study was to examine the impact of a ten-minute bout of running on the cognitive performance of physically active individuals, in this case, sports students.

The study model was a randomized parallel-group trial with 51 participants, 17 females and 34 males, at the approximate age of 22. All of them were at a good fitness level because they were all sport science students. They were randomly put into two groups: a physical activity group and a sedentary control group.

The task of the participants in the physical activity group was to run outdoors for 10 minutes, while at the same time the participants in the sedentary group were asked to remain in a sedentary position.

The results were assessed at three points in time: pre-intervention, post-intervention, and 30 minutes after the intervention, as a follow-up.

More specifically, the scientists were interested in the changes of visual attention, as well as perceived attention and affective states.

The Results

The results of this study are very interesting, and given what we know, not unexpected.

The main conclusion is that compared to the sedentary group, the physical activity group had significant changes in cognitive function, mental sharpness, and attention immediately after the physical activity. However, this effect faded before the 30-minute check-up.

Here’s what else they found:

  • Short bouts of physical activity can be really effective for visual attention. According to the research, “the greatest enhancement in cognitive functions occurs within a critical time window of 11 to 20 min after the physical activity bout.”
  • Both physiological and cognitive arousal was observed in the physical activity group compared with the sedentary group. Scientists weren’t able to fully explain the mechanisms of action of this effect, but it was nonetheless noticeable.
  • Perceived attention in the physical activity group was also notably increased immediately after the exercise, but disappeared before the first 30 minutes were up. 

The Conclusion

The study examined the positive effects of 10-minute bouts of intense physical activity on attention and cognition compared to no physical activity. Their findings further confirm what we already know about the positive effects of exercise on the whole body, the mind included.

They concluded that “a ten-minute running bout conducted in a study course break might be considered a more restorative short-term intervention to enhance visual attention shortly after a break, compared with a sedentary control condition”.

Furthermore, they go on to suggest that this is an easy way to include small breaks for students throughout the day and potentially apply this approach to offices as part of a regular routine in the future.

There are many more individual parameters left that need to be taken into consideration before generalizing these results, like the intensity variation of the exercise, the motivation, and mood of the participants, the outside conditions, etc., but for now, it’s clear that exercise does influence the mind’s performance.

In any case, taking a small break in your day where you do any kind of physical activity will definitely be of good use for your cognitive performance as well as your mental health, no doubt about that.


Resource: https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/17/10/3678


References:

1.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19346988/

2.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24735973/

3.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24650807/ 

4.https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006899312004003 

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