Thursday, October 16, 2014

Effects of acute bouts of exercise on cognition


In his 2003 journal article, Phillip Tomporowski addresses how short periods of exercise affect our cognitive thinking abilities.  He identifies that there is plenty of literature showing that brief bouts of exercise improve both the mood of the participant, as well has their ability to think clearly.  Exercise has also been linked to reducing stress levels as well as anxiety and depression.  At the time of this research though, there was very little evidence to support the hypothesis that short periods of exercise improve cognitive brain functions.

Tomporowski conducted a literature review of the relevant studies relating to exercise and cognitive abilities.  The research was broken into three categories: studies that focused on  1) intense exercise 2) the relation of exercise induced arousal 3) long aerobic physical activities.

1) Relationship of intense exercise on cognitive thinking abilities

At the time, research on intense exercise and its link to cognitive thinking was examined by pushing the subject to near exhaustion (using fast running or biking exercises) and then conduction either a visual or oral test.  The effects of intense exercise on visual cognitive tasks, such as viewing maps and determining distance and routes, did not tend to be affected by intense cardiac workouts.

Studies did find a transient effect on the participants cognitive thinking abilities when presented with problems that required greater response preparation.  Wrisberg and Herbert (1976) only found this deterioration in response time and accuracy to have only a small deduction in thinking abilities.

2) Relationship of exercise induced arousal on cognitive thinking abilities.

Exercise induced arousal has presented many different findings on the participants cognitive thinking abilities.    There is some evidence that suggest it works in a reverse U shape.  For example, Salmela and Ndoye (1986) found that cognitive abilities were highest at 115 beats per minute than at rest or at 145 beats per minute.  Levitt and Gutin (1971) had similar findings were cognitive abilities peaked at 115 beats per minute, reached resting level at 145 beats per minute, and decreased at 175 beats per minute.

Many of the journals Tomporowski reviewed did not show reverse U shape relation to the participants cognitive abilities.  Much of the literature relating to visual recognition showed an increase in visual identification responses.  Allard et al. (1989) found visual recognition to be at its highest when participants were cycling at the highest level of intensity, contradictory to the reverse U shape model suggested by other researchers.

3) Long aerobic physical activities on cognitive thinking abilities

As with the other two categories, there was no agreed upon conclusions.  Travlos and Marisi (1995) found no increase in cognitive cognitive abilities during 50-min cycling exercises where the reaction time of participants were tested.  The same was found by Tomporowski et al. (1987) when testing college students memory during extended periods of running.

Other studies found that prolonged excise helped facilitate decision making processes.  Tests were administered during the exercise as well as during the cool down phases.  In both cases, participants speed in making decisions greatly increased.


Tomporowski's literature review of the effects of exercise on cognitive abilities present a great deal of unanswered questions.  A majority of the findings are inconclusive and contradictory to other similar findings.  There are two key takeaways from this that I find important to intelligence analysts.

1) In all three of the categories, there was evidence to suggests that exercise helps improve cognitive tasks involving visual recognition and interpretation.  These results were best while the participant had an elevated heart rate.  Geospatial analysis is one area that I feel could best benefit from exercise and increasing the heart rate of the analysts.  Simple exercises, such as push-ups, jumping jacks, sit-ups, and running in place may help offer boosts in visual recognition to analysts.

2) A majority of the evidence suggests that excise does have some kind of influence on cognitive thinking.  There are many ways to help analysts have an elevated heart rate at work.  Examples include standing desks and treadmills with desks attached.  Exercise facilities located in the building are other options.  While I agree that research must continue into the influence exercise has on cognitive thinking, the intelligence community should start considering exercising as a tool to help improve the short term cognitive abilities of their analysts.


Tomporowski, Phillip D (2003).  Effects of acute bouts of exercise on cognition.  Acta Psychologica.  P. 297 - 324.


  1. Harrison,

    Are you familiar with the Tabata variation of high intensity interval training? I think such an approach is also conducive to increasing heart rate in a short period of time in an analytical environment.

    The original Tabata experiment consisted of a 4 minute workout with a 20 second all-out/10 second brisk recovery phase interval setup on a stationary exercise bike five days a week. After six weeks, the interval training group increased VO2 max by 7 ml/kg/min and increased anaerobic capacity by 28% which outperformed the sixty minute moderate intensity group.

  2. I am familiar with tabata exercises. It is a common workout used by Crossfiters. The most common exercises used with tabata workouts are body weight lifts (push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, body squats) as well as cardiovascular exercises (biking, running, row machine).

  3. Harrison, do you think intelligence analysts should incorporate exercise into their daily activity to increase forecasting ability and or decrease stress? In addition, do you think companies should provide exercise classes in the workplace?

  4. Joy,

    I do believe exercise, diet and sleep play a pivotal role in our ability to put together pieces of information, remember details, and create proper forecasts. I believe that these three factors, when lacking, put analysts at a disadvantage when trying to accuratly create a forecast. We need to have our body and our mind running at optimal performance.

    Exercise, sleep and diet also play a key role in decreasing stress. A clean diet allows us to be less sluggish and irratable. A strong sleep schedule allows us to feel refreshed and alert. Exercise gives us time away from the office to focus on improving our bodies.

    As you know Joy, I often do push-ups or some other type of exercises at the GA lab while doing work. I feel this gives me a kick start both mentally and physically. It also gives me that 30 seconds to a minute to reset my mind and attack the problem from a different angle when I return to the computer. I strongly believe with the notion of having gyms or workout space within corporations. In addition, companies should offer workout classes, such as yoga, to give their workers short breaks to refresh their body and mind.