Moderate intensity aerobic exercise improves executive control

  • Ashna Samani School of Kinesiology, Western University
  • Matthew Heath School of Kinesiology, Western University


An extensive body of literature has reported that moderate-to-vigorous intensity aerobic exercise elicits transient and long-lasting benefits to cognition (Colcombe and Kramer 2003: Psyhol Sci). In particular, the increased cerebral blood flow associated with aerobic exercise is thought to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of cognitive-related brain structures. The goal of the present study was to determine if moderate intensity aerobic exercise engenders a specific and immediate benefit to executive control. To address this question, 14 participants (19-26 yrs) were required to cycle on an ergometer for: (1) a 2.5-minute warm-up (90W), (2) 10-minutes at a moderate intensity (55-70% of max HR), and (3) 2.5-minutes of cool-down (90W). Notably, to address executive control we examined antisaccade (i.e., saccade mirror-symmetrical to a target) performance pre- and post-exercise (i.e., after heart rate returned to baseline) interventions. The antisaccade task is an ideal task to examine executive control because of its hands- and language-free nature and because directionally correct antisaccades are mediated via high-level executive structures residing in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – a cortical region shown to elicit increased activity post-exercise intervention. Results showed that antisaccade RTs significantly decreased from pre- to post-exercise intervention without a concomitant increase in the frequency of direction errors. Thus, the improved post-intervention RTs cannot be attributed to a speed-accuracy trade-off. As such, moderate intensity aerobic exercise engenders an immediate benefit to executive control and we propose that such a benefit may arise from increased activity within the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

Acknowledgments: Supported by NSERC