Loughborough University
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The relations between objectively measured moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, chronic aerobic exercise and cognitive control in children and adolescents

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posted on 2015-06-01, 09:20 authored by Dominika M. Pindus
Physical inactivity among young people is a public health concern. Markers of physical inactivity, such as low cardio-respiratory fitness (CRF) and obesity are adversely related to higher order cognitive functions, which underpin goal directed behaviour (i.e. cognitive control) and are implicated in academic achievement. Regular aerobic exercise can benefit cognitive control in children. However, it remains unknown whether daily physical activity behaviour is associated with cognitive control. Investigating this is important as targeting increments in daily moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) may initially be a more realistic policy goal than developing aerobic exercise interventions. Nominal number of studies assessed this relationship using objective monitoring of physical activity (accelerometry), and yielded mixed results. None of the studies into objectively measured physical activity and cognitive function in young people controlled for CRF, which is posited to mediate the relationship between regular aerobic exercise and cognitive control. Likewise, other important confounders such as intelligence, have yet to be addressed in the literature. Moreover, it is unknown whether this relationship varies with age, as extant studies looked solely at younger adolescents. For example, meta-analytical findings (Fedewa & Ahn, 2011) suggest that children can benefit more cognitively from CRF and chronic aerobic exercise than adolescents as greater effect sizes have been observed for younger compared to older youngsters. Alternatively, chronic aerobic exercise may be specifically needed for cognitive benefits to emerge. However, none of the aerobic exercise interventions included objective assessments of baseline physical activity and few studies assessed the effects of chronic aerobic exercise interventions on multiple indices of cognitive control. This thesis aimed to address the limitations of previous research and to investigate: 1) the associations between objectively measured daily MVPA and cognitive control in older adolescents (study 1), and 2) in preadolescent children (study 2), while controlling for CRF, general intellectual ability and a number of important confounders (e.g. adiposity, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder); 3) the relationship between daily MVPA and academic achievement (study 2); 4) the effects of chronic aerobic exercise intervention on cognitive control in children, while controlling for objectively measured daily MVPA and time sedentary at baseline (study 3). Methods: Study 1. A sample of 667 adolescents (Mage = 15.4, SD = .17, 55.5% girls) from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children was included in the analyses. MVPA was measured with ActiGraph, GT1M accelerometer. CRF was assessed with sub-maximal cycle ergometer test and expressed as weight adjusted predicted physical work capacity at the heart rate of 170 beats per minute (PWC-170). Attentional control was measured with Stop Signal task. Study 2. A sample of 81 children (Mage = 8.64 years, SD = .57, 45.7 % girls) was included in the analyses. MVPA was objectively measured using the ActiGraph, wGT3X+ accelerometer. CRF was measured using a maximal graded exercise test on a treadmill. Inhibitory control was assessed with a modified Eriksen flanker task, working memory with Operation Span Task; and academic achievement with Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement. Study 3. 32 children (Mage = 8.64, SD = .58, 56.2% girls) were randomised into a physical activity intervention (FITKids2) or a waitlist control group. Changes in VO2max were measured using a maximal graded treadmill exercise test and changes in MVPA were objectively monitored for 7 days using the ActiGraph, wGT3X+ accelerometer. Behavioural measures of inhibition (reaction time, and accuracy) and working memory (accuracy) were taken using computerised laboratory tasks (modified Eriksen flanker task and Operation Span Task). Results: Study 1. MVPA was not significantly related to cognitive processing speed or variability of cognitive performance in hierarchical linear regression models. In simple regression models, CRF was negatively related to mean RT on the simple go condition (R2 = 2.6%, F(1, 308) = 8.28, p = .004). Study 2. No significant associations were noted between MVPA and either inhibition, working memory, or academic achievement. In contrast, CRF explained 4.7% of variance in accuracy interference (∆R2 = .047, p = .045; β = -.22, t(78) = 2.03, p = .045, F(2, 78) = 4.95, p = .009). Study 3. FITKids2 physical activity intervention had a positive effect on the speed of responding during incongruent condition of flanker task (F(1, 30) = 4.69, p = .038, ƞp2 = .13). A significant increase in BMI percentile was observed in the control (Z = 2.17, p = .03) but not in the intervention group (p = .53). Discussion: Study 1. Our results suggest that aerobic fitness, but not MVPA, was associated with cognitive processing speed under less cognitively demanding task conditions. The results thus indicate a potential global effect of aerobic fitness on cognitive functions in adolescents but this may differ depending on the specific task characteristics. Study 2. The results of this study suggest that CRF but not objectively measured MVPA was associated with better interference control in preadolescent children. Given the intermittent nature of children s daily MVPA, it is possible that aerobic exercise, which increases CRF is needed for cognitive benefits to emerge. Study 3. FITKids2 after-school physical activity intervention had a positive effect on children s inhibitory control, namely this cognitive function, which is closely related to academic achievement and future job and health outcomes. Thus, the results of this study convey a positive public health message, where promoting child s engagement in aerobic exercise can engender benefits to their cognitive function. Conclusions: The findings from this thesis can inform development of physical activity interventions to benefit cognitive functions in young people and contribute to the evidence base to inform future health and educational policies.


School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, Loughborough Univeristy



  • Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences


© Dominika Pindus

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This work is made available according to the conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) licence. Full details of this licence are available at: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.


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