Study links consistent exercise and cognition
By Abbie Kouzmanoff, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Thursday, May 24, 2012
While exercise has long been linked to physical health, research conducted by psychology professor David Bucci and his team found that it may also benefit mental health. Routine exercise, even in low doses, can improve cognitive function and individuals’ general mood, researchers found.
Results of the study, titled “Differential Effects of Acute and Regular Physical Exercise on Cognition and Affect,” demonstrated that exercise improved cognitive function in those who exercised regularly, but especially in those who also exercised on the day of testing, according to researcher Michelle Van Tieghem ’12. Some individuals also possess genetic dispositions that influence their response to exercise, the research found.
“It’s a really interesting result because it shows that some people might be more inclined to exercise to improve their cognitive abilities, and for others it doesn’t affect them as much,” Van Tieghem said.
In collaboration with psychology professor Paul Whalen, Bucci asked sedentary Dartmouth students to exercise regularly for four weeks and then fill out a series of cognitive and anxiety surveys.
For mood and anxiety issues, research indicates the regularity, rather than the intensity, of exercise is the key factor in improving mood and anxiety, and that it may take some time for the benefits to manifest themselves, according to student researcher and co-author Michael Hopkins GR ’11.
The research, published in the journal Neuroscience, found that guidelines to improve cardiovascular health may be much more demanding than those required to improve mental function, according to Hopkins.
Walking for a total of only 30 minutes every other day for four months was sufficient to produce a measurable improvement in cognition and mood, he said.
“I thought that was really good news for people because I think a lot of times, the idea of going to the gym and becoming a regular exerciser is very daunting,” Hopkins said.
Results showed that only exercising on the day of testing, however, was not sufficient, according to Bucci.
“Probably some aerobic physical activity each day is the way to go,” he said.
Whalen said he was surprised to find that exercising the day of testing was also vital for enhanced performance.
“You would think if you’ve exercised for four weeks whether you exercise that day or not shouldn’t determine whether you see a benefit, so that’s the stuff we’ll follow up on,” Whalen said.
Thus far, research is not extensive enough to establish a systematic or structured exercise program based on the results, Bucci said. It remains unclear how much, for how long and at what time exercise is best carried out.
The study is one of the first to use exercise as a manipulated variable instead of as a constant factor taken into consideration at the end of research, Bucci said.
“Ours is one of the first to look at exercise in a prospective fashion, not just retrospective, and to head-to-head compare the effects of regular exercise to just an acute single bout,” he said.
Hopkins said he hopes more specific exercise parameters will be determined in the future, which will allow the findings to have a tangible impact, particularly for students.
“Everybody knows exercise is healthy, but it turns out that what we’re learning is that exercising can actually help you do better on tests, so that’s something to think about when you’re weighing your decisions over the course of the day and week,” Hopkins said. “You cannot only do yourself a favor physically by going to the gym, but you can also be helping your GPA.”
Because many Dartmouth students live an active lifestyle, the research reaffirms that students’ activities are aiding their schoolwork, Van Tieghem said.
Bucci said he undertook the study following his recent work on the link between exercise and memory in subjects with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. After considering the effects of regular exercise in rats, Bucci said that researchers decided to apply this study to Dartmouth undergraduate students.
Hannah Iaccarino ’12, a researcher in Bucci’s lab, described the professor as a model scientist and mentor.
“He’s hands on and will come down to the lab and help us when we need it, but he lets us take on our own projects and really take on ownership of the science we’re doing,” Iaccarino said.