Michael Hunter, MD on Medika Life

Use Exercise to Improve Cognition

NEW RESEARCH ADDS TO A GROWING body of evidence regarding how you can use exercise to improve your cognition. Here are the positive results, as published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology:

Twenty minutes of physical activity on a treadmill improved attention, action monitoring, and inhibitory control (more on that in a bit). The benefits accrued to both anxious and non-anxious individuals.

Today we explore the research investigation “The effect of acute exercise for reducing cognitive alterations associated with individuals high in anxiety.” First, though, let’s look at some of the other known benefits of physical activity and exercise.

Exercise benefits

Physical activity has many upsides, ranging from muscle preservation to cardiovascular health optimization. Exercise,,, and you are more likely to avoid premature death and dodge chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. While there are some risks associated with exercise, the benefits outweigh the risks for most individuals.

While we lack high-quality randomized clinical trials of exercise for the prevention of early death in a healthy population, there is an abundance of observational studies suggesting this:

Regular exercise drops the risk of mortality for most men and women, younger and older individuals, and those with high blood pressure.

Do you exercise? The drops in risk are associated with recreational and non-recreational physical activity and are observed in countries of varying income levels.

While the benefits of exercise have some dose dependency, even so-called weekend warriors get improvements in cancer death risk, heart health, and early death compared with sedentary individuals.

Somewhat surprisingly to me, doses of moderate-intensity physical activity greater than 100 minutes daily for healthy individuals are not associated with additional drops in mortality rates.

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Exercise and cognition

I have written about my approaches to optimizing my mental functioning:How I Keep My Brain Ridiculously FitPHYSICAL ACTIVITY, adequate sleep, flavonoids (more about that in a bit), and more. These are essential elements for me…medium.com

Today, we focus on exercise and its association with improvements in cognitive functioning. First, an aside about how exercise may be working its magic — among other things, regular physical activity:

  • stimulates physiological changes that reduce inflammation and insulin resistance;
  • promotes the growth of new blood vessels in the brain;
  • improves the number and overall health of our brain cells.

Study authors Dr. Matthew Pontifex and his team aimed to see how exercise might help with anxiety-related cognitive impairments. Anxiety affects attentional resources, impairing attentional control.

Here’s what they did: Researchers conducted a brain imaging study to see how exercise impacts students’ performances on an inhibitory control task. They compared the reactions of anxious and non-anxious participants.

The study included 37 college-aged women with generalized anxiety (high anxiety group) and 33 who fell below the cut-off for generalized anxiety (low anxiety).

All participants did two lab sessions on two separate days. For one of the sessions, participants completed the Eriksen flanker task before and after 20 minutes of moderate exercise on a treadmill. Individuals did no exercise for the other lab session but completed the inhibitory control task before and after 20 minutes of sitting.

Photo by Fakurian Design on Unsplash

What is the inhibitory control task? The test required participants to avoid responding to irrelevant stimuli. As the subjects performed the task, researchers recorded brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG), a process that involves leads placed on the scalp to measure brain electrical activity.

Here are the results in a nutshell:

Exercise offered cognitive benefits for both anxious and non-anxious people.

The study authors acknowledge that more research is needed to explore how exercise type, duration, and intensity influence cognition. Other forms of exercise may be better for acute bouts of anxiety among the highly anxious.

My takeaway? Move and you will likely reap both physical and psychological benefits. Join a friend to walk around your block, get out in the garden, take the stairs, park far away from your grocery store.


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Michael Hunter, MD
Michael Hunter, MD
I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

Michael Hunter, MD

I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

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