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17-03-2013 | Paediatrics | Article

Acute physical exercise beneficial for executive functioning


Free abstract

medwireNews: Findings from a meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggest that acute physical exercise appears to increase executive function domains in children, adolescents, and young adults.

In a related press release, Lot Verburgh (VU University Amsterdam, the Netherlands) and colleagues note, "These positive effects of physical exercise on inhibition/interference control are encouraging and highly relevant, given the importance of inhibitory control and interference control in daily life."

However, chronic physical exercise did not seem to convey the same beneficial effect. Results from studies of chronic exercise were inconsistent and thus nonsignificant.

Verburgh et al reviewed data from 24 studies that looked at the effect of physical exercise on executive functions in children and young adults aged 6-30 years (N=836). Acute exercise was defined as a single short-term session approximately 10-40 minutes long, while chronic exercise consisted of multiple training sessions per week, each longer in duration, for a total time period between 6 and 30 weeks.

In general, acute exercise had a moderate positive effect on overall executive function and a small-to-moderate positive effect on the inhibition/interference control domain. Results were consistent across age groups, and there were no significant between-group comparison effects. The effect of acute exercise on working memory, which was only tested in young adults, was nonsignificant.

Five of the studies reviewed how chronic exercise affects executive function. Across all age groups, the effect size was not significant. There was no evidence of publication bias.

The investigators note that it is unclear exactly why acute exercise may have this particular beneficial effect, but "it may be speculated that a stronger elevation of CBF [cerebral blood flow] and cerebral oxygenation, possibly mediated by better vascularisation, in (pre)frontal brain areas as compared to other brain areas, accounts for selective effects of acute physical exercise on executive functions."

Verburgh et al conclude that these results are "highly relevant, given the current increase in obesity in children and adolescents and the increase in sedentary behaviour in these age-groups." They recommend encouraging acute physical exercise in at-risk groups, including children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism, and developing stronger future studies that look at whether chronic physical exercise can provide similar beneficial effects on physical function.

By Stephanie Leveene, medwireNews Reporter

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