6 Ways Exercise Can Improve Cognitive Function

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James Hewitt is a performance scientist, and Chief Commercial & Innovation Officer at OPTIVIO.

Many of us know that exercise is an effective way to improve cognitive function, but the next obvious questions are “why, what type, and how much?”. Read on to find out why exercise provides such a powerful boost to our brains, discover six different ways in which exercise improves cognition, and learn about the minimum effective exercise dose required.

Life makes a lot of demands that, arguably, our ancient brains are not built for

Lately, I feel that I’m managing more information flows than ever before as I try to stop my email inbox from overflowing, do my best to stay in touch with family and friends, and keep up to date with my to-do list. Simultaneously, I’m managing increasingly complex professional challenges, requiring me to focus on solving problems while collaborating across continents. Therefore, like many people today, I’m interested in finding ways to improve my cognitive performance. Through my research at Loughborough University, I’m well-placed to hear about new opportunities to achieve this. Yet, despite being bombarded with brain-boosting opportunities like pills, potions, and smartphone apps, evidence suggests that one of the most potent performance enhancers is practically free and remarkably simple: exercise.

Exercise provides short- and long-term gains in cognitive function: I’m focused on the short-term

Much of the evidence linking physical activity to improved cognitive function relates to the potential for exercise to stimulate structural and functional changes in our brains. The benefits of these changes are ‘chronic’ (or long-term) and include protecting us from declines in cognitive function as we age.

However, I’m also interested in the ways that exercise can provide ‘acute’, short-term boosts to cognitive performance, if, for example, I need to perform well in a meeting, or on a challenging assignment. There is a significant body of evidence describing how physical activity can also result in immediate improvements in cognition, especially in executive functions, cognitive flexibility, and long-term memory.

What are 6 specific cognitive function improvements that exercise can provide?

  1. Selective attention: exercise can improve the ability to allocate our cognitive resources appropriately, e.g., focusing on reading a long e-mail.

  2. Working memory capacity: can enhance the ability to hold and process information, e.g., being able to remember the key points in the email, decide how to respond, keep the key points, and plan in mind, while you compose the reply.

  3. Response inhibition: can improve our willpower in terms of our ability to suppress actions. This capability enables us to adapt our behavior to suit our goals, e.g., resisting the urge to check and read the new email that just arrived until you have finished writing and have sent the previous email.

  4. Cognitive flexibility: studies using electroencephalogram (EEG), which monitors the brain during tasks by measuring the electrical activity of the brain, have demonstrated that exercise is also associated with increased cognitive flexibility; that is, the ability to switch between tasks and consider multiple concepts.

  5. Long-term memory: can improve performance in tasks requiring memorization – but timing matters. Engaging in physical activity 1 to 2 hours after a memory task may be detrimental to the ability to maintain the memory. In contrast, physical activity that is done 1 hour before memory retrieval (needing to remember information from the task), is associated with superior memory performance.

  6. Psychological benefits: exercise is also associated with a range of psychological-related benefits, including:

    • Decreased anxiety

    • Reduced depressive symptoms

    • Increased assertiveness

    • Improved confidence

    • Better emotional stability

Exercise works, but how much is enough?

We still have a lot to learn about the links between exercise and cognitive function, but across age groups, in healthy populations, relative to other approaches, some of the most persuasive evidence for cognitive performance enhancement is still found in physical activity. So, what is the optimum dose of exercise required to improve cognitive performance? Well, that depends on what you are hoping to achieve. Refer to the chart below.

For myself, I use exercise tactically as a cognitive function enhancer on a reasonably regular basis. Here’s how I might use exercise:

  • For improving executive function: As the chart shows, slightly higher intensity – around 85% max. heart rate – is quite effective at improving executive function, which facilitates our ability to concentrate and resist distraction. I generally find it easier to focus in the morning, but I often need to perform well, with high levels of focus and concentration, in the afternoon, too. To provide a boost to my post-lunch cognition, I’ll often squeeze in a short interval session – outside if the weather permits – or indoors with something like Zwift if the weather is not so great.

  • For improving memory: If I need improved memory in the afternoon (for example, if I’m presenting at a conference), typically I do work in the morning, attend meetings or relax for 1 – 2 hours, then go for a 30-minute bike ride at lunchtime, then cool down and shower, and by the time I get on stage, my memory is at its peak.

  • For improving mood: As the table summary suggests, and as I’m sure many of you have experienced, almost any kind of exercise seems able to provide a mood boost.

The takeaway

Regular exercise can provide a simple, effective way for healthy people to enhance their cognitive function. This may offer significant benefits in life and work. Perhaps you will work smarter and faster. Or, maybe you can achieve the same level of performance, with less stress. Whatever the case, there are plenty of great reasons to get moving. What are your experiences of using exercise to improve your cognitive performance? Let us know in the comments.

Optivio is an enterprise-level stress management and performance optimization platform that can help your workforce better manage stress. Learn more about it here: http://www.optivio.com/technology 


  • Basso J.C., et al. Acute exercise improves prefrontal cortex but not hippocampal function in healthy adults. J Int Neuropsychol Soc. 2015;21(10):791-801.

  • Basso, J. C., & Suzuki, W. A. (2017). The Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood, Cognition, Neurophysiology, and Neurochemical Pathways: A Review, 2, 127–152.

  • Guiney H. & Machado, L. (2013) Benefits of regular aerobic exercise for executive functioning in healthy populations. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. 20(1) p. 73-86

  • Mandolesi, L., Polverino, A., Montuori, S., Foti, F., Ferraioli, G., Sorrentino, P., & Sorrentino, G. (2018). Effects of physical exercise on cognitive functioning and wellbeing: Biological and psychological benefits. Frontiers in Psychology, 9(APR), 1–11.

  • Marsh, H. W., and Sonstroem, R. J. (1995). Importance ratings and specific components of physical self-concept: relevance to predicting global components of self-concept and exercise. J. Sport Exerc. Psychol. 17, 84–104. doi: 10.1123/jsep.17.1.84

  • Maroulakis E, Zervas Y. Effects of aerobic exercise on the mood of adult women. Percept Mot Skills. 1993;76(3 Pt 1):795-801.

  • McMorris, T. (2016) State of the Art and Future Research in Exercise-Cognition Interaction: Neuroscience Perspectives. Exercise-Cognition Interaction: Neuroscience Perspectives (pp. 459-460). Elsevier Science.

  • Pontifex, M. B., Gwizdala, K. L., Parks, A. C., Pfeiffer, K. A., & Fenn, K. M. (2016). The Association between Physical Activity during the Day and Long-Term Memory Stability. Scientific Reports, 6(July), 1–9.

  • Reed J, Ones DS. The effect of acute aerobic exercise on positive activated affect: A meta-analysis. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. 2006;7(5):477-514.

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