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Exercise appears to improve
brain function among younger people
Mitchell, News Editor
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. —
As an expanding body of work continues to confirm links between exercise
and improved brain function in older adults, a new study by researchers
at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Vrije Universiteit
in Amsterdam suggests similar improvements among younger populations
“Physical activity may be beneficial to cognition during early
and middle periods of the human lifespan and may continue to protect
against age-related loss of cognitive function during older adulthood,”
said Charles H. Hillman, a U. of I. professor of kinesiology
and of community health and the lead author of the study, published
in the current edition of the journal Health Psychology.
Hillman said the findings support the need to promote the benefits of
regular exercise across the lifespan, beginning in childhood. And, he
said, more research is needed to gain a better understanding of the
relationship between physical activity and cognition for people of all
“It is important to begin studying individuals during early adulthood,
and especially childhood, as early intervention may be more beneficial.
That is, why wait until individuals are older and have been sedentary
to intervene? Why not demonstrate the prophylactic effects of exercise
on cognition at an earlier age, if there is indeed an effect?”
Hillman noted that most previous research to date indicating positive
relationships between physical activity and cognitive function has been
focused primarily on older populations. The current study considered
data collected by Hillman’s Dutch colleagues from 241 people aged
15-71 living in the greater Amsterdam area. Participants reported their
physical-activity behavior and completed a series of tests designed
to indicate task-performance capabilities.
The tasks, which measured subjects’ reaction time and response
accuracy when presented with congruent and incongruent visual patterns,
involve cognitive processes known as executive control function (ECF).
ECF, Hillman said, “refers to a subset of processes – planning,
scheduling, working memory, inhibition, task coordination etc. –
involved in the intentional component of environmental interaction.”
In other words, he said, while carrying out these activities, “the
individual cannot go on ‘autopilot.’ Further, the task never
habituates, meaning that each time the task is presented, it requires
After controlling for gender and IQ – factors related to physical
activity participation or cognitive function – the researchers
documented slower reaction time among older compared with younger subjects,
and improved (faster) reaction time with increased physical-activity
participation. Among older participants, those who indicated they were
physically active demonstrated improved task performance – in
reaction time and response accuracy.
Physically active younger participants registered improved reaction
times. However, Hillman said, there was no significant correlation between
physical activity and response accuracy among that group.
In general, he noted, the study results supported conclusions of previous
research by U. of I. psychology and neuroscience professor Arthur F. Kramer and colleagues linking physical
activity to improved performance on tasks with large executive components.
But Hillman’s team also observed improvement on tasks with small
executive components, “indicating a general relationship of physical
activity to cognitive performance that is selectively larger for ECF.”
Hillman described tasks with large executive control components as those
requiring “inhibition of habitual responses, such as stepping
on the brake when the light changes from red to green because a cyclist
jumps out in front of the car.”
Another example, he said, involves “the management of interference
within an environment – for example, detecting a street sign amid
a visually confusing environment.” Greater levels of ECF are also
present when “switching between cognitive tasks,” or, in
simple, everyday terms – multitasking.
Among the study’s older physically active participants there was
a “disproportionately larger influence of physical activity on
tasks requiring greater amounts of executive control.” No similar
relationship was observed among younger subjects.
In the end, Hillman said the researchers do not know whether physical
activity protects against cognitive loss during younger periods of the
lifespan or if it promotes better cognitive function.
“Regardless,” he said, “the importance is the same.
Physical activity is related to better cognitive health and effective
functioning across the lifespan.”
Co-authors of the study with Hillman are U. of I. kinesiology and community
health professor Robert W. Motl and U. of I. graduate student Matthew
B. Pontifex, and, at Vrije Universiteit, biological psychology professors
Dorret I. Boomsma, Eco J.C. de Geus and Danielle Posthuma, and graduate
student Janine H. Stubbe.