Beneficial effects of high-intensity exercise on the attentive brain

Physical exercise and the brain

Emerging evidence from research studies suggests that physical activity can improve attention, brain function and well-being. In an attempt to understand more about the beneficial effects of high-intensity exercise, we recently conducted a study on the effect of PHysical Activity on Brain function (PHAB study). We examined whether cycling at a high intensity for 20 minutes would improve brain-activity (electroencephalography; EEG) measures of attention and focus during computerised tasks. We also aimed to investigate whether some individuals, for example those who are physically fit, would benefit more or less from exercise.

PHAb setup2

Does high-intensity exercise improve attention?

Participants (young adult men) were invited to our research centre, where they completed computer tasks while we recorded their brain activity. In the first task, they were asked to respond to letter ‘X’ following an ‘O’, but not to respond if another letter was presented after an ‘O’. Participants performed the task both before and after exercise and rest, and so we were able to test if their brain activity changed after exercise.

Task

We found that an attention measure called the “P3” was enhanced after exercise but not after rest. This suggests that the intense exercise session led to improvements in their attention. These improvements in attention from exercise were equal across participants, regardless of how physically fit they were.

The participants also performed two subsequent computer tasks, but we did not find improvements after exercise in these tasks. We believe that the beneficial effects of exercise may have worn off by the time that they performed these tasks.

These results suggest that intense exercise may improve attention. Exercise may therefore be beneficial for individuals with impairing levels of inattentive and restless behaviours, such as ADHD. This is currently being tested in the clinical trial CoCA (https://mind-the-gap.live/2018/10/09/10-weeks-of-physical-exercise-or-light-therapy/) (https://mind-the-gap.live/2017/02/18/coca-proud-trial-ready-to-roll/).

Read more about our study results at:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166432818308490

If you have any questions

Please feel free to contact Professor Jonna Kuntsi (jonna.kuntsi@kcl.ac.uk). The project was supported by a Medical Research Council studentship to Ebba Du Rietz.

Phelps

 

Ebba Du Rietz and Jonna Kuntsi

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