Yes, Exercise Helps the Executive Functions

When we work with college students, we focus on their academics through the development of the executive functions. Hence the name of our program, academic coaching. However, there are other aspects of a college student’s life that often trickle into our work. One of those areas is exercise.

A new study out of the University of Tsukuba in Japan tells us what we already know. Exercise can improve our mental health and physical well-being. What the study also tells us is that exercise can help with our executive functions too. Specifically, it increases blood flow to the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, which can help us process information and increase our ability to use our executive functions.

Some other ways exercise improves the executive functions include:

  • Neurotransmitter Release: Physical activity stimulates the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. These chemicals play a key role in regulating mood, attention, and motivation, all of which are essential for effective executive function.
  • Reduced Stress and Anxiety: Regular exercise helps reduce levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. Lower stress levels contribute to improved cognitive flexibility, allowing individuals to adapt more effectively to changing circumstances and tasks.
  • Enhanced Cognitive Flexibility: Exercise has been shown to promote neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form new connections and reorganize itself. This supports cognitive flexibility, enabling individuals to switch between tasks and ideas more efficiently.
  • Improved Mood and Energy Levels: Physical activity is known to elevate mood and increase energy levels. A positive mood and heightened energy facilitate better focus, sustained attention, and productivity, all of which are crucial for effective executive functioning.
This research further validates what we already know: college students need to be active. They should be exercising multiple times each week because this will help both their academic success, wellbeing, and their ability to use their executive functions. 

We like to set exercise goals with the college students we work with. We know that this will have a positive effect on their weekly academic life. We also know that a little bit of goal setting and accountability can go a long way towards helping students complete tasks they otherwise might now want to. Exercise can sometimes be an overlooked component of the college experience, but when students can start to incorporate this into their routine, it can have tremendous benefits.

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