High-Intensity Exercise Boosts Cognition and Attention

(Last Updated On: June 8, 2018)
high-intensity exercise and cognition

Biking is a great way to do high-intensity exercise.

Recent research has shown conclusively that regular and intermittent high-intensity exercise significantly increases cognition and attention in kids and adults.

Young adults score higher with high-intensity exercise

The first study, from Iceland’s Reykjavik University School of Science and
Engineering, studied 46 healthy students with an average age of 23 years old.

The students were divided into two groups. One group rested and the other group was given an intense workout routine that increased in intensity and intermittently reached the “maximal heart rate.” Then they were tested for cognitive function afterwards and then assigned to the other group and re-tested.

Those students who exercised with intermittent intensity scored significantly higher on the cognitive tests, as compared to those students who had been resting.

However, this relationship only occurred among those students who were already physically active and regularly exercised. Those who did not exercise regularly outside of the testing did not show cognitive improvement following their exercise routines.

Sedentary to high-intensity exercise

This relationship was confirmed by another study, this one from New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College. These researchers divided sedentary (people who didn’t regularly exercise before the study) subjects into four groups. The groups 1) underwent a four-week exercise program including the day of the test; 2) underwent the four-week exercise program but rested on the test day; 3) exercised only on test day; or 4) did not exercise at all during the four-week period including the test day.

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The researchers found that only those who exercised for the four weeks plus the final day scored significantly better on their cognitive memory tests. The other three groups did not show any significant cognitive memory improvement over the four weeks. Those who exercised daily but not on test day did not show improvement, just as those who did not exercise daily but did on test day.

While other studies have shown a general relationship between exercise and cognitive improvement, these two studies suggest that exercise increases cognition assuming the person regularly maintains their exercise routine. Furthermore, a workout routine that intermittently increases in intensity provides the clearest cognitive boost.

In addition, exercise can significantly increase cognitive performance on a particular test or event, but only if the person regularly exercises and if the exercise was also performed on the day of the cognitive test.

High-intensity exercise boosts attention for kids

A 2014 study from Canada’s Queen’s University studied 88 kids between 9 and 11 years old. They measured the use of four minute “FUNtervals” high-intensity exercise against no activity for three weeks. The kids did the intervals during their break.

The research found those kids who did the four minutes of high-intensity exercise on their breaks had better selective attention than those who did no high-intensity exercise during their breaks.

We’ve discussed other research showing that playing outside reduces ADHD risk in children.

Older women boost executive function

Researchers from Bowling Green State University studied 11 women between 60 and 75 years old. They developed 20-minute exercise programs with either moderate or high-intensity exercise.

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The research found that workouts of greater intensity boosted their executive function greater than the moderate exercise. Some brain training also helps cognition according to other research.

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Peiffer R, Darby LA, Fullenkamp A, Morgan AL. Effects of Acute Aerobic Exercise on Executive Function in Older Women. J Sports Sci Med. 2015 Aug 11;14(3):574-83.

Ma JK, Le Mare L, Gurd BJ. Four minutes of in-class high-intensity interval activity improves selective attention in 9- to 11-year olds. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2015 Mar;40(3):238-44. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2014-0309.

Budde H, Brunelli A, Machado S, Velasques B, Ribeiro P, Arias-Carrión O, Voelcker-Rehage C. Intermittent Maximal Exercise Improves Attentional Performance Only in Physically Active Students. Arch Med Res. 2012 Feb 27.


Case Adams, PhD

Case Adams has a Ph.D. in Natural Health Sciences, is a California Naturopath and is Board Certified as an Alternative Medicine Practitioner, with clinical experience and diplomas in Aromatherapy, Bach Flower Remedies, Blood Chemistry, Clinical Nutritional Counseling, Homeopathy and Colon Hydrotherapy. He has authored 27 books and numerous articles on print and online magazines. Contact: case@caseadams.com

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