Exercise and Cognitive Function: A Randomized Controlled Trial Examining Acute Exercise and Free-Living Physical Activity and Sedentary Effects

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To simultaneously examine the effects of acute exercise intensity and free-living physical activity and sedentary behavior on cognitive function in young, healthy adults.

Patients and Methods:

Using a counterbalanced, crossover, randomized controlled design, 87 young adults (mean age, 21.4 years) completed various cognitive assessments with and without an acute bout of exercise preceding the assessment. Participants were randomized into 1 of 4 groups to complete a 30-minute bout of acute exercise: control (no exercise), light intensity (40%-50% of predicted maximum heart rate [HRmax]), moderate intensity (51%-70% of predicted HRmax), or vigorous intensity (71%-85% of predicted HRmax). Subjectively and objectively determined (accelerometry) physical activity and sedentary behavior were assessed to examine the association between these free-living behaviors and cognitive function. The study duration was August 26, 2013, to September 11, 2014.


Concentration-related cognition (mean ± SD Feature Match test score) was significantly higher after a 30-minute acute bout of moderate-intensity exercise (145.1±26.9) compared with cognitive assessment without exercise (121.3±19.2; P=.004). Furthermore, questionnaire-determined sedentary behavior was inversely associated with visual attention and task switching (Trail Making Test A score) (β=–0.23; P=.04). Last, estimated cardiorespiratory fitness (volume of maximum oxygen consumption) was positively associated with reasoning-related cognitive function (Odd One Out test score) (β=0.49; P=.05); when adding metabolic equivalent of task minutes per week to this model, the results were not significant (β=0.47; P=.07).


These findings provide some support for acute moderate-intensity exercise, sedentary behavior, and cardiorespiratory fitness being associated with executive functioning–related cognitive function in young, healthy adults.

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