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Differential Effects of Acute Exercise on Distinct Aspects of Executive Function


Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: July 2015 - Volume 47 - Issue 7 - p 1460–1469
doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000000542
Applied Sciences

Purpose: To increase understanding about the effects of moderate-intensity physical activity on cognitive function, the current study examined whether a single bout of aerobic exercise exerts differential effects on distinct aspects of executive function in healthy young adults.

Methods: A within-subjects study was designed where 26 young adult participants (mean age = 25.23 yr, 12 males) engaged in a 30-min bout of both (a) moderate-intensity aerobic cycling and (b) passive motor-driven cycling, occurring on two separate occasions and counterbalanced in their order. To assess changes in cognitive function, performance on two tasks of executive function—working memory and inhibitory control, counterbalanced in the order of administration—was collected before and immediately after each exercise session.

Results: Results indicate that working memory performance on the 2-back condition of a facial n-back task was acutely enhanced by moderate-intensity exercise (mean increase in accuracy = 6.4% ± 1.1%), which was significantly greater than the changes after passive exercise control (P < 0.05). This finding was not observed for inhibitory control in which neither of the exercise sessions elicited significant changes in performance on a flanker task.

Conclusions: Acute aerobic exercise evokes differential effects on executive functions. This specificity in behavioral outcomes leads to the prediction that brain mechanisms related to working memory, compared to inhibitory control, are selectively benefited by moderate-intensity exercise.

1Department of Psychology, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA; and 2Department of Health and Human Physiology, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA

Address for correspondence: Michelle W. Voss, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, E231 Seashore Hall, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52242; E-mail:

Submitted for publication May 2014.

Accepted for publication October 2014.

© 2015 American College of Sports Medicine