New psychology research published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology adds support to existing claims regarding the cognitive benefits of exercise. The study revealed that 20 minutes of exercise on a treadmill improved inhibitory control, attention, and action monitoring among both anxious and non-anxious individuals.
The mental health benefits of exercise have been well documented, including evidence to suggest that exercise can enhance cognitive functioning. These benefits might be particularly relevant for individuals with anxiety, given that anxiety has been suggested to interfere with cognition. Anxiety involves persistent worry and apprehension, and these thought processes are believed to consume attentional resources, thus impairing attentional control.
Study authors Matthew B. Pontifex and his team wanted to explore whether exercise might combat these anxiety-related weaknesses in cognition. To do this, they conducted a brain imaging study to see how exercise would impact students’ performances on an inhibitory control task, comparing the reactions of anxious and non-anxious participants.
Since anxiety tends to disproportionately affect women, the researchers recruited a female-only sample of college-aged women to take part in the study. The sample included 37 women who met the cut-off for generalized anxiety (high anxiety group) and 33 women who fell below the cut-off (low anxiety group).
All participants took part in two lab sessions on two separate days. During one lab session, the participants completed the Eriksen flanker task both before and after 20 minutes of moderate exercise on a treadmill. During the other lab session, the participants did not exercise but completed the inhibitory control task before and after 20 minutes of sitting. The participants were randomly assigned in counterbalanced order to attend either the exercise lab session or the sitting lab session first.
The inhibitory control task required participants to refrain from responding to irrelevant stimuli. During the task, electroencephalographic activity was recorded and neural responses were measured according to two components of event-related potentials (ERPs). P3 amplitude served as a measure of allocation of attentional resources. Error-related negativity (ERN) amplitude — an electrical brain signal that takes place after a person makes a behavioral mistake — served as a measure of action monitoring.
First, it was found that both high anxiety and low anxiety participants performed better on the flanker task after having exercised for 20 minutes. This was seen by faster reaction times and more accurate responses during the task, suggesting improved inhibitory control. The participants’ performances did not improve, however, following the 20 minutes of sitting.
Both groups also saw increases in ERN amplitude following the treadmill activity, but not following the sitting. This suggests that the exercise increased the activation of action monitoring processes. Additionally, both groups showed increases in P3 amplitude after the exercise but not after the sitting. Notably, the increase in P3 amplitude was greater among the low anxiety group compared to the high anxiety group.
Increased P3 amplitude is thought to reflect the suppression of irrelevant brain activity to improve attentional processing. According to the study authors, the fact that the high anxiety group showed weaker increases in P3 amplitude compared to the low anxiety group suggests that the treadmill activity did not “fully suppress” their anxious thoughts.
The authors say their findings suggest that exercise offers cognitive benefits for both anxious and non-anxious people. They say that more research will be needed to explore how exercise intensity, duration, and type might differently affect cognition, noting that “there may be other types of exercise that are better suited to optimizing the outcomes of acute bouts such that both affective responses and cognition are enhanced in high anxious populations.”
The study, “The effect of acute exercise for reducing cognitive alterations associated with individuals high in anxiety”, was authored by Matthew B. Pontifex, Andrew C. Parks, Anthony G. Delli Paoli, Hans S. Schroder, and Jason S. Moser.