Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Benefits of Regular Aerobic Exercise for Executive Functioning in Healthy Populations

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Benefits of Regular Aerobic Exercise for Executive Functioning in Healthy Populations

Article excerpt

Published online: 11 December 2012

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Abstract Research suggests that regular aerobic exercise has the potential to improve executive functioning, even in healthy populations. The purpose of this review is to elucidate which components of executive functioning benefit from such exercise in healthy populations. In light of the developmental time course of executive functions, we consider separately children, young adults, and older adults. Data to date from studies of aging provide strong evidence of exercise-linked benefits related to task switching, selective attention, inhibition of prepotent responses, and working memory capacity; furthermore, cross-sectional fitness data suggest that working memory updating could potentially benefit as well. In young adults, working memory updating is the main executive function shown to benefit from regular exercise, but cross-sectional data further suggest that task-switching and posterror performance may also benefit. In children, working memory capacity has been shown to benefit, and cross-sectional data suggest potential benefits for selective attention and inhibitory control. Although more research investigating exercise-related benefits for specific components of executive functioning is clearly needed in young adults and children, when considered across the age groups, ample evidence indicates that regular engagement in aerobic exercise can provide a simple means for healthy people to optimize a range of executive functions.

Keywords Chronic physical activity . Executive functions . Cognitive control . Children . Young adults . Older adults

Mounting evidence indicates that regular engagement in exercise can confer a benefit for some of the executive functions known to develop late (throughout childhood and adolescence) and to deteriorate early in the course of healthy aging (see, e.g., Colcombe & Kramer, 2003; Tomporowski, Lambourne, & Okumura, 2011). Executive functions are strategic in nature and depend on higher-order cognitive processes that underpin planning, sustained attention, selective attention, resistance to interference, volitional inhibition, working memory, and mental flexibility (reviewed in Chan, Shum, Toulopoulou, & Chen, 2008). These functions are crucial for human survival and depend largely on the frontal lobes, with support from temporal and parietal cortices (reviewed in Miyake et al., 2000). While the majority of the data to date supporting exercise-related benefits in executive functioning within healthy populations have involved older adults, evidence is beginning to emerge that regular engagement in aerobic exercise might also be beneficial for such functioning in young adulthood, despite executive functioning peaking developmentally in that age group (Åberg et al., 2009; Hansen, Johnsen, Sollers, Stenvik, & Thayer, 2004; Kamijo & Takeda, 2010; Themanson & Hillman, 2006; Themanson, Pontifex, & Hillman, 2008). Given the increasingly sedentary disposition of Western society (World Health Organization, 2012a, 2012b) and the rapidly aging population (United Nations Population Division, 2009), it is in the interests of health providers and the public that the links between exercise and executive functioning across the lifespan be thoroughly examined.

The purpose of this review is to consider which components of executive functioning have been shown to improve with regular aerobic exercise in healthy populations. We focus on executive functions in particular because evidence suggests that they may be more sensitive to exercise than basic perceptual and motor functions, not just in populations whose executive functions are still developing or are in decline (see Colcombe & Kramer, 2003; Kramer et al., 1999; Tomporowski, et al., 2011), but also in populations at peak in terms of executive functioning (see Hillman, Erickson, & Kramer, 2008; Hillman, Kramer, Belopolsky, & Smith, 2006). …

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