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Impact of Exercise on Cognitive Function and Mood

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Published: 21st May 2019 in Assignment

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Multiple studies provide insights into what exercise can do to enhance physical and mental states. High levels of the BDNF serum in the hippocampus help with neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. The purpose of the study is to support the prediction that exercise enhances cognitive function and overall mood of participants. This research examines the impact of exercise on a sedentary lifestyle over a period of eight months. The participants are randomly assigned to two conditions: moderate-intensity or control group. The result suggests that moderate intensity exercise intervention enhances the mood of the participants. There is a less significant result on learning and memory based on the scores of the Wechsler test between control versus treatment, and pretest versus posttest. The multitude of the impact of exercise has to be examined more for students with longer duration of the intervention.

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The Impact of Exercise on Cognitive Function and Mood

In the late 90s, public health undermined the benefits of physical activity. This false notion changes over the years because multiple studies show the importance of exercise on physical and mental states (Van, 2009). However, most adults in the United States do not exercise according to the standard recommendation (Hillman et al., 2008). Sedentary lifestyle leads to costly healthcare expenses on lifelong diseases such as diabetes and obesity (Hillman et al., 2008). Exercise not only decreases the chance to prevent these diseases, it also enhances the working function of the brain (Cotman & Berchtold, 2002). Hippocampus is an important area of the brain associated with learning and memory (Erickson et al., 2011). There is a loss of the volume in the hippocampus by 1-2% in late adulthood each year (Erickson et al., 2011). Without the right intervention, cognitive abilities such as executive control, formation, maintenance of memories, and attention would decline (Smiley et al., 2008).  

Literature Review

Exercise and Mood

One of the components to promote a healthy lifestyle is physical activity. Studies show exercise not only affects cognitive performance but also enhances mood in participants (Stroth et al., 2009). Young adult participants who received six week of exercise intervention were asked to report their emotions shows an increase in the scores during baseline compared to after intervention (Stroth et al., 2009).

Two-thirds of college students must find the balance between school and work, the struggle to balance the two obligations often lead to sedentary and unhealthy lifestyle (Oviatt & David, 2017). Students who are exposed to constant stress suffer depression and anxiety (Cotman & Berchtold, 2002). In attempt to release the stress, students are likely to consume marijuana, cigarette, and alcohol during work and school conflict (Oviatt & David, 2017). Without early intervention, this practice would have serious and long lasting consequences on the wellbeing of the individuals. Exercise helps lessen the effect of stress hormones (Cotman & Berchtold, 2002), shields the brain from substantial injury from stroke and speed up the healing process (Van, 2009).  

Exercise and Cognition

Study suggests the importance of physical exercise on neuroplasticity in rats, which enhances cognitive function specifically in learning and memory (Lin et al., 2012). Hippocampus and the amygdala play important roles in contextual and cued conditioning. However, only treadmill running would impact both regions of the brain, while voluntary wheel running only affects the hippocampus (Lin et al., 2012). Researchers argue the levels of stress accompanied with different exercise the far response in the amygdala (Lin et al., 2012). This reinforces the idea that different types of exercise result in the localization effect of the brain (Smiley et al., 2008).

A study conducted by Erickson and his colleagues suggests that exercise improve memory (Erickson et al., 2011). It is proven that exercise raises the level of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the the hippocampus for weeks (Van 2009). Higher BDNF levels in the hippocampus indicate better working memory (Erickson et al., 2011). This serum helps establishing new neural network that strengthen the connection of the neurotransmitters, and prolong the lifespan of neurons (Van, 2009). Exercise also slows down the neurodegeneration in older adults that causes diseases such as Alzheimer (Colcombe et al., 2003). The effects it has on cognitive function also depend on the age of the participants (Hillman et al., 2008). After an intense workout, the time to recall words in adolescents become shorter, which proves that exercise enhances memory and learning (Van, 2009).

Researchers looked at components such as self-efficacy, cognitive variables, cardiovascular fitness and physical activity (Hotting, Schauenburg, & Roder, 2012). Future studies with longitudinal design are necessary to further support this claim. There is not many research that examines the impacts of exercise on young adults. Therefore, it is important to examine the effectiveness exercise has on cognitive function and the overall wellbeing of individuals. Eight months of moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise accompanied with pretest and posttest. The hypothesis is exercise intervention increases cognitive function and overall mood of the participants. This study examines the multitude of impact exercise has on college students.



The study is a quantitative between subject with a pretest and posttest design because it is necessary to compare the scores of participants during these periods to ensure that the internal validity is high and not because of the confound variables (Morling, 2018). There would be two treatments conditions: control and treatment group. Control group would ask to keep their daily activities the same. Treatment group would go through eight months of 30 minutes moderate intensity exercise. Mood would be measured after the end of each week, while learning and memory test would be given before and after exercise intervention.


Participants would be undergraduate students age 21-30 at Temple University, Philadelphia. Students with pre-existing health complications and physically fit were excluded from the sample.

Sampling Methods

It would be convenience sampling because it is more accessible to recruit undergraduate psychology major students to participate in this study (Morling, 2018). There is not any concern for bias on this type of sampling method because the study does not focus on high external validity. The researchers recruited 80 participants in two different classrooms. There were 60 female and 20 males participated in this study. As a requirement for a two semesters course, the students spend three days a week for a 50 minutes exercise intervention at the end of each class.


Ergospirometry measuring stations (MetaMax I, Cortex, Leipzig, Germany) (Hötting et al, 2012) for heart rate and respiration.

Wechsler Memory Test includes seven subtests which cover auditory, visual, immediate, and delayed memory (Clinical psychology, n.d.). This test has been modified four times to improve its validity since 1945. Testing administrator who purchases this measurement instrument has to provide proof of qualification. It is recommended to go through a 30 minutes pre-recorded training instructed by a certified Ph.D. psychologist. This procedure is to ensure the validity of the test is high. There is no concern for reliability because the study consists of a test-retest design.

The Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) which would measure the current mood state of the participants (Kronhe et al., 1996).

Random Assignment

To participate in this study, participants must sign informed consent. There would be random assignment, each participant would be given a number for confidentiality (Morling, 2018). These numbers would be draw out from a hat to assign the condition.

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Before the exercise intervention, there would be a pretest screener to determine the capability of each individual. A qualified exercise physiologist who is familiarize with the equipment would monitor the heart rate and respiration till the participants reach max VO2 uptake.

Treatment group

The participants would do 10 minutes warm up, 30 minutes of moderate intensity, and 10 minutes cool down. The intensity of the workout would increase by 5% each week (Erickson et al., 2011) until the heart rate would be achieved and maintained at 65%-80% for the rest of the intervention period (Lippincott, 2006). The physiologist monitor this process to ensure that each participant meets this requirement.

Control group

Participants in the control group would wear pedometers during whole the duration of the study to monitor their physical activities (Van, 2009). The participants would self-report their daily activity via text message to the research assistant. This is to ensure during the duration of the study, the participants in the control group would not exercise without notifying the researchers.                       


At the end of each week, participants in both conditions would self-report their current mood by answering the PANAS via text message to the research assistant (Kronhe et al., 1996).     

Pretest and Posttest

The Wechsler Memory Test is given to participants in both conditions (Clinical psychology, n.d.). After six months of 30 minutes moderate intensity exercise, the scores for the Wechsler Memory Test would be computed again to see if there is any difference due to exercise intervention in learning and memory.  The test administrator who was given out the memory test had no knowledge about the condition of participants. The time of the test would be conduct in the morning after the last day of the exercise intervention to avoid any confounding variables.


Based on a wide range of research studies in the literature examine the effect of exercise on human and nonhuman subjects. The hypothesis is that exercise increases cognitive function and the mood of participants. There is a positive correlation between exercise and memory (Stroth et al, 2009). After an exercise intervention, result shows participants gain 2% of volume in the hippocampus, which counterbalance the 1%-2% loss of neurons in this area due to aging each year (Erickson et al., 2011). The result of the participants’ scores after the exercise intervention shows a slight increase for learning and memory. Physical activity does not give the same benefits to young adult compare to other age groups (Hillman et al., 2008). This is due to the cognitive health peaks in adolescents (Salthouse & Hasker, 2006). Exercise intervention also helps enhance the mood of the participants.

Strengths and weaknesses

Since this is an eight-month exercise intervention, some participants drop out of the study due to various reasons (dropping the class, moving away, death, etc.). It is a between subject design so the internal validity is high (Morling, 2018). The external validity is low because the study only focuses on the impact of exercise on participants. It does not look at whether this intervention would work for the general population.

The participants were recruited with convenience sampling to prevent the possibility of ceiling effect due to highly motivated individuals (Morling, 2018). Testing administrator who given the Wechsler Memory Test is blinded to the condition the participant is in to eliminate the observer effect (Morling, 2018). It is to provide a neutral interaction and lower the chance of confounding variables.

Beside the participants who drop out of the study, there is 100% attendance because the participants have to finish the treadmill running before the class time is over. There is a limitation to avoid sensitization because the participants took the Weschler Memory Test two times during pretest and posttest (Morling, 2018).

Implications and future directions

This study supports that exercise intervention enhances cognitive function and mood of individuals. It would help prevent neurodegeneration, strengthen neurons, and establish long lasting neural network (Van, 2009). The findings of this study implicate that exercise has tremendous impacts on specific areas of the brain.

There are not many studies about how exercise helps students improve school performance and decrease the stress level in the literature. Early exercise intervention might prevent students from using substances that would be harmful for the bodies. Exercise is a healthier and low cost alternative for health complications than medication (Van, 2009)It is also necessary to closely examine the impact of exercise on other areas of the brain in a study with longer duration.


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