How Physical Activity Can Improve “Executive Function”
Chances are you’ve recently heard or read about the importance of “executive function”—the set of higher-order mental skills that allow us to plan and organize, make considered decisions, manage our time and focus our attention. (The famous “marshmallow experiment” was all about executive function.) No matter how smart or talented we—or our kids or our employees—are, not much will get done well without these key capacities.
The problem is that researchers don’t yet know much about how to strengthen executive functioning. A review from cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham reports that certain parental behaviors—”meaningful praise, affection, sensitivity to the child’s needs, and encouragement,” along with intellectual stimulation, support for autonomy, and well-structured and consistent rules—can help kids develop robust executive function skills over the long run. Shorter-term interventions, such as the school-based program Tools of the Mind, have shown mixed or disappointing results, and computerized “brain training” exercises have generally failed to show that improvements in executive function produced by such exercises transfer to real-life tasks.
There is one surprising but well-supported way to improve executive function in both children and adults, however: aerobic exercise. A just-published review of the relevant research, appearing in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, concludes that “ample evidence indicates that regular engagement in aerobic exercise can provide a simple means for healthy people to optimize a range of executive functions.” Drawing on that article, here are some of the benefits of exercise for executive function, as found in three different populations:
School-aged children. Studies of kids have found that regular aerobic exercise can expand their working memory—the capacity that allows us to mentally manipulate facts and ideas to solve problems—as well as improve their selective attention and their ability to inhibit disruptive impulses. Regular exercise and overall physical fitness have been linked to academic achievement, as well as to success on specific tasks like safely crossing a busy street while talking on a cell phone (note to concerned readers: the street in the experiment was virtual).
Young adults. Executive functioning reaches its peak levels in young adults, and yet it can be improved still further with aerobic exercise. Studies on young adults find that those who exercise regularly post quicker reaction times, give more accurate responses, and are more effective at detecting errors when they engage in fast-paced tasks in the lab.
Older adults. Research on older adults has found that regular aerobic exercise can boost the executive functions that typically deteriorate with age, including the ability to pay focused attention, to switch among tasks, and to hold multiple items in working memory. One such study assigned older adults to three one-hour sessions of exercise a week for six months, scanning participants’ brains before and after the six-month period; the scans showed “significant increases in gray and white matter volumes” in areas of the brain associated with executive control. (A group of older adults who engaged in strength and flexibility training for the same six months showed no such brain growth.) Abstracts of all the studies cited are available here.
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