April 10, 2013
Attention Spans, Cognitive Ability Tied To Physical Activity, Health
Michael Harper for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
A new study published this week in the journal PLoS ONE explains that active and healthy people are more likely to have better attention spans than those with sedentary lifestyles.
Researchers from the University of Granada carried out the study and found that physical activity, such as running or playing sports, can improve the functions of the central nervous system (CNS) and autonomic nervous system (ANS). In addition to a longer attention span, active people were also found to have better cognitive abilities than their less active peers. To reach this conclusion, the University of Granada researchers compared cognitive performance by testing the sustained attention, time oriented attention and time perception of their subjects.
A group of 28 young males comprised the study´s subjects, many of them University of Granada students. These students, aged 17 to 23, showed a “low level of physical aptitude” and represented the less active portion of the study. The remaining 14 young men were aged 18 to 29 and were much more active than their counterparts. As a way to prove the second group´s high level of physical aptitude, the researchers have said 11 of these men belonged to a cycling federation while the other three were studying physical activity at the University.
Previous research claims that physical activity can be beneficial to the central nervous system and autonomous nervous system. For instance, an increase in physical activity has been shown to improve vagal tone, or improve the efficiency of the ANS and CNS. For example, staying active can prevent neuro-degeneration as well as help nerves and blood vessels grow and stay strong.
Building from this prior knowledge, the University of Granada researchers discovered that the bicycling, physically adept group of men were able to stay focused on a task for longer periods of time, as well as respond more quickly to different stimuli. Though the researchers saw results in these areas, the active men did not outperform the less active men in any other test.
The researchers were shocked to see how differently the ANS was affected during the cognitive tests. For instance, when testing temporary perception, the young subjects´ heart rates decreased. Yet, when testing sustained perception there was almost no change to the young men´s heart rates. In fact, as the researchers moved from test to test, the heart rate of the active group remained mostly steady. The sedentary group of young men, on the other hand, saw drops and rises in heart rate between tests.
After compiling and analyzing their data, the principal author of the study, Antonio Luque Casado of the Department of Experimental Psychology said the benefits to staying active and healthy have become even more clear than they had been before.
“It is important therefore to highlight that both the physiological and behavioral results obtained through our study suggest that the main benefit resulting from the good physical condition of the cyclists who participated in the study, appeared to be associated with the processes implicated by sustained attention,” said Casado in a statement.
Casado and his team of researchers also warn that this is only a preliminary study, noting that future investigations are necessary in order to confirm these initial findings.”
The team is also evaluating how these results might be displayed in different population groups as well as different methods to collect data during future tests.