Updated: Apr 18, 2022
An article discussing the effects of exercise on executive brain function - Article originally published on August 26, 2018.
At NeuroKinetic Solutions™ we strive to stay on top of the latest research on exercise and the brain to inform professional development presentations and insure that the Brain Pump™ exercise class curriculum remains on the cutting edge for maximizing the potential of children. Last month I had the opportunity to present research at the European College of Sport Science Congress in Dublin, Ireland. There were over 2900 top sport scientists from all over the world, so I was able to attend some top-notch presentations. It is already well established that exercise helps the brain, but researchers are starting to unlock more of the physiological mechanisms and beginning to answer questions about how much and what kind of exercise is needed for more specific cognitive needs. First I'll give a quick summary of the research we did, and then I'll summarize some of what I learned at the conference.
NKS and researchers at Auburn University Montgomery are doing research on muscle activation during the asymmetrical tonic neck reflex (ATNR). The ATNR should not be present after about one year of age, and it can cause difficulty with coordination and learning if retained into school years. It is a reflex that is shown to be present in very high percentages of children diagnosed with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and dyslexia, but can also be present in children who have no diagnosis. What isn't known is exactly what is going on with the muscles, and we are hoping that this is something we can determine with EMG and use to develop effective interventions. We presented the findings from our pilot study and are gearing up for a larger study in the near future.
Several of the presentations I was able to attend by other researchers centered around "Executive function," which has to do with mental skills like being able to pay attention, focusing on a task until it is complete, regulating emotions, organizing, and planning. In a study on the role of motor coordination on executive function in children with and without ASD, the researchers noted that autistic children tend to have motor delays, and also poor executive function. They wanted to know if executive function could be improved with motor coordination training, and they found that indeed there is potential. Another study looked at the effects of different types of exercise on executive function in healthy young adults- they assessed working memory, inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility, and planning. They did three training sessions per week for four weeks: coordinative exercise, moderate intensity running, or both. All groups scored significantly better than the control group, but the one that did exercise requiring coordination, plus aerobic exercise, scored significantly higher on the cognitive flexibility test than doing only a single type of exercise.
Some studies looked at the effects of one bout of exercise (acute exercise) as opposed to a regular program over time. They looked at effects of either maximal exercise (go hard until you drop), or moderate exercise for 1/2 hour, on executive function and increase in circulating BDNF ("miracle grow" for the brain). Neither found changes in executive function, but the moderate exercise improved recognition memory, and both increased circulating BDNF. In another study on acute exercise, the researchers looked at the effects of cognitively demanding aerobic exercise vs. simple aerobic exercise on working memory. They found that the simple aerobic exercise was better for executive function and theorized that cognitive fatigue may cancel some of the beneficial effects post exercise. So, for the long term, it is important to do regular cognitively demanding exercise, such as dance, martial arts, complex sports, or just doing something cognitive while you exercise, but if you are exercising to fire up your brain right before a test, do something vigorous but simple, like running or biking.
A significant relationship was also found between physical fitness and "non-cognitive ability" in young children. The researchers suggested that exercise can promote leadership, grit, coping well with things, and positive self-perception in children. In another study researchers looked at physical activity influence on metacognition and creativity in H.S. students. They found that the exercise group had significantly higher scores on creativity and metacognitive learning strategy assessments. Other researchers found that listening to music during exercise had small to moderate effects on working memory. Jogging alone helps, but adding in music results in more efficient and faster response to stimulus in a cognitive test.
Erin Reilly is a co-owner of NeuroKinetic Solutions, LLC and co-founder of Brain Pump™. She is also a professor in the Kinesiology Department at Auburn University Montgomery.
“ So, for the long term, it is important to do regular cognitively demanding exercise, such as dance, martial arts, complex sports, or just doing something cognitive while you exercise, but if you are exercising to fire up your brain right before a test, do something vigorous but simple, like running or biking.”