Anxiety affects cognitive ability and only 20 minutes of exercise are enough to improve, although it also improves in healthy people
Anxiety is a part of life and we all suffer from it from time to time, be it from problems at work, before an exam or when making an important decision. But an anxiety disorder is something more. For people who suffer from it, anxiety does not go away and it can get worse over time. Anxiety disorder affects cognitive abilities and can interfere with job performance, schoolwork, and personal relationships.
One of the most effective ways to improve anxiety symptoms is exercise. A new study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology has shown that 20 minutes of exercise on a treadmill improves inhibitory control, attention and action control , three measures of cognitive ability . What is important is that this works for both anxious and non-anxious individuals.
Anxiety interferes with cognition because it involves constant worry and apprehension. These thoughts prevent us from paying attention to other things, from paying attention to what we are doing or from being able to give adequate responses to our surroundings.
The Eriksen test
Since anxiety tends to affect women more, the researchers recruited a sample of 70 college-age women to participate in the study. The sample included 37 women who met the limit for generalized anxiety (high anxiety group) and 33 women who were below the limit (low anxiety group).
During one of the tests, the participants had to complete Eriksen’s flanking task. This is a well-known test of attention and control in which people have to distinguish between a correct answer flanked by incorrect answers, or the other way around. It is a measure of the ability to ignore irrelevant stimuli.
Participants took this test before and after 20 minutes of moderate exercise on a treadmill. In the second session, they did the same test after sitting for 20 minutes. During the task, EEG activity was recorded and neural responses were measured to give a measure of attention. To assess action control, the amplitude of error-related negativity (ERN), an electrical signal in the brain that occurs after a person commits a behavioral error, was measured.
Everyone earns points after running
Both high-anxiety and low-anxiety participants performed better on the flanking task after they had exercised for 20 minutes. Reaction times were faster and responses more precise during the task, suggesting an improvement in inhibitory control. However, the performance of the participants did not improve after 20 minutes of sitting.
An increase in ERN amplitude, response to errors, was also observed after physical activity, but not after sitting. This suggests that exercise improves action monitoring. Increased attention span was also recorded, although exercise failed to ‘completely suppress’ anxious thoughts.
The results suggest that exercise improves cognitive abilities for both anxious and non-anxious people. Still, more research will be needed to explore what intensity, duration, and type of exercise works best.