Acute exercise and cognition: An examination of the effect of exercise intensity on episodic memory and executive function performance

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The Ohio State University

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Background: Acute aerobic exercise has been linked to improvements in certain types of memory and executive function following exercise cessation, however, the characteristics of exercise (e.g., intensity) that provide maximal cognitive benefits are still debated. Objective: To investigate the dose-response relationship between acute aerobic exercise intensity and performance in multiple cognitive domains (episodic memory and executive function). Methods: 18 young adults (M age = 21.6, SD = 2.6; M education = 15.3, SD = 2.6; 50% female) each completed a control (rest), light intensity, and vigorous intensity aerobic exercise condition across three counterbalanced appointments. Participants then completed a continuous Mnemonic Similarity Task (MST; Stark et al., 2019) to assess pattern separation and a gradual-onset continuous performance task (gradCPT; Esterman et al., 2013) to assess sustained attention and inhibitory control after each condition. Results: For the MST, a hypothesized significant main effect of lure similarity on task performance (p < .001) was revealed; however, there was not a significant main effect of exercise intensity on task performance (or a significant interaction). A significant main effect of exercise intensity on gradCPT performance on task discrimination ability (d') and commission error rate (p's < .05) was observed. Post-hoc comparisons revealed task discrimination ability was significantly higher following the light intensity exercise condition versus the control condition. Commission error rate was significantly lower for both the light and vigorous exercise conditions compared to the control condition. Conclusions: The current study does not replicate previous work demonstrating an improvement in pattern separation following bouts of acute aerobic exercise in young adults. Our results further indicate that vigorous intensity exercise did not detrimentally impact or improve pattern separation performance. The current study indicated that bouts of acute aerobic exercise improve both sustained attention and inhibitory control as measured with the gradCPT. Our results show that light intensity aerobic exercise was sufficient to enhance sustained attention and inhibitory control as assessed with the gradCPT. Keywords: Cognition; Episodic Memory; Executive function; Attention; Aerobic Exercise.