Exercise May Enhance Attention Span in Young Adults

Mental health and attention span in young adults improved with regular exercise

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Research has shown that exercise can improve health and raise mood, but the benefits might not stop there. New research suggests exercise may improve attention span.

A recent study looked at the relationship between prolonged exercise and the ability to focus attention in young people.

The researchers found that exercise played a positive role in the ability to focus attention on a given task.

"Talk to a physician before beginning an exercise program."

Laura PĂ©rez, of the Department of Psychology at the University of the Balearic Islands in Spain, and colleagues conducted this study. They wanted to see if regular exercise improved attention span in young adults.

The study examined 64 healthy participants between the ages of 20 and 30. Participants were separated into two groups: physically active and physically inactive.

Of the participants, 31 were categorized as active. This meant they exercised at least three times a week for more than 10 years for an average of six or more hours a week. The remaining 33 patients were classified as inactive.

To keep other factors from affecting the study, researchers didn't include patients who had a history of neurological disease, mental illness, head injury, stroke, substance abuse (excluding nicotine) and learning disabilities.

Each participant answered a survey to assess activity levels, a vocabulary test to assess verbal recall abilities and the Attentional Network Test (ANT). The ANT studied three aspects of mental ability: executive functions (thought management, problem solving and flexibility), orienting functions (which process incoming information from the senses) and alerting functions (which measure the ability to focus attention).

No major differences were found between the active and inactive participants' abilities to process sensory information (orienting function) or in their abilities to focus their attention (alerting function). However, the results showed that prolonged exercise played a positive role in young adults' performance on tests of executive functions, which can play an important role in mental health.

The researchers said the results of this study should encourage doctors to consider exercise a protective measure for mental health. By showing that exercise not only enhanced a person's mental health in old age but also in young adults, the study revealed a positive link between exercise and a person's ability to focus and learn.

"The study of the interaction between these factors remains in its infancy, however, and the degree and direction of these interactions needs further investigation," the study authors wrote.

The researchers noted one main study limitation. Previous studies have linked a person's belief in his or her own ability with the ability to complete physical activities, the authors noted. Therefore, the study's active patients might have been able to score higher on tasks that required higher levels of focus because they believed in their abilities.

This research was published online in July 2014 by PLOS ONE. The Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation provided funding.

The researchers reported no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
July 22, 2014
Last Updated:
July 28, 2014