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Intense exercise during school day can boost adolescent brain function, study shows

Sprint-based exercises introduced during the school day can sharpen pupil minds in the classroom, new research reveals.

A study by Loughborough University’s School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, part of the National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine East Midlands, and Nottingham Trent University’s School of Science and Technology, found that response times among adolescent pupils became significantly faster – but remained just as accurate – post-exercise. 

The work, published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports, saw 12 year-old pupils undertake 10 x 10 second sprints, interspersed by 50 seconds of walking, before requiring them to undertake classroom-based cognitive function tests.  

Pupils also performed the tests without exercise as part of a ‘resting trial’. 

The researchers found that pupils’ response times improved by about 5% when performing the ‘Stroop test’ following exercise. This test measures attention by challenging participants to respond with the colour a word is written in, rather than the word itself – for instance if the word ‘green’ is written in blue font, then blue is the correct response. 

The effect was evident immediately after exercise – despite pupils reporting physical tiredness on a mood questionnaire – and remained 45 minutes after exercise. 

The study was the first to examine the effects of sprint-based exercise on cognitive function among adolescents. 

Researchers argue the findings could provide a springboard for schools and school policymakers to incorporate more opportunities for physical activity – such as active break times and physical education classes – during the school day, as a way of optimising learning. 

Dr Stephan Bandelow, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Loughborough University and part of the research team, said: “The links between exercise and cognitive function are becoming increasingly well established. Children and adolescents benefit as shown in this study, and our work in older people also supports the idea that exercise can protect the ageing brain to prevent cognitive decline and dementia.” 

Lead researcher Dr Simon Cooper, Senior Lecturer in Sport Science at Nottingham Trent University, said: “This study is the first to demonstrate enhanced cognitive function following sprint-based exercise in young people. 

“This is of particular interest, given that bursts of high intensity exercise, interspersed with rest, is an activity pattern which is common among adolescents. 

“Our findings are of great importance to schools, demonstrating the importance of PE in the curriculum, and support the inclusion of high-intensity sprint-based exercise for adolescent pupils during the school day. 

“We know the physical, social and emotional benefits that exercise can bring – and this study suggests that high-intensity physical activity could also enhance academic achievement among adolescents by improving cognitive function.” 

The study entitled Sprint-based exercise and cognitive function in adolescents is available to view here.

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