EXERCISE
March 19, 2013

Exercise Your Executive Brain

Having trouble with self control or making a decision? A burst of exercise might help your thinking.

A brisk walk or quick jog or bike ride may be all you need if you are facing a tough problem or decision and not sure what to do. They can also help children and adults find the self control necessary to cope with frustration and temptation, according to a new Dutch study.

Short bouts of exercise increase blood flow to the area of the brain responsible for executive brain functions, like making decisions or planning ahead and keeping one's cool.

A brisk walk or jog, climbing some stairs, or gym class or recess, can help kids maintain better self control and could be useful to children with memory, concentration, planning, and decision-making difficulties.

The findings suggest that the stimulation to the brain's prefrontal cortex provided by climbing stairs, a gym class or recess can help kids maintain better self control. Physical activity might even be useful to children with memory, concentration, planning, and decision-making difficulties, such as those with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder or autism.

Exercise may also delay the onset of dementia.

The investigators evaluated data from 24 studies that looked at the effect of exercise on higher brain functions in three groups: 6- to 12-year-olds; 13- to 17-year-olds; and 18- to 35-year-olds. Across all three age groups, quick bursts of exercise appeared to improve higher brain function, and results from 12 studies suggested that it had a modest positive effect on self control for all three age groups.

The researchers say that this finding is particularly important for children and teens because higher brain functions are important for success in school. Recess has already been shown to improve school performance.

“These positive effects of physical exercise on inhibition/interference control are encouraging and highly relevant, given the importance of inhibitory control and interference control in daily life," they write. Inhibition and self-control are important in sports as well as in social and academic settings.

Nineteen of the 24 studies looked at the effects of short exercise efforts and five looked at the effects of regular exercise. Regular exercise didn't seem to affect higher brain functions, but there were too few studies, and the available data were inconsistent, to draw any definite conclusions. More research on exercise and higher brain functions is needed, particularly studies comparing the effects of regular exercise on higher brain function across age groups.

The authors conclude that, “Given the trend for a more sedentary lifestyle, worldwide aging and the increasing prevalence of dementia, the results highlight the importance of engaging in physical exercise in the general population.”

The study is published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

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