New study shows exercise boosts working memory like caffeine

An innovative lab at Western University known for promoting exercise as a way to reduce tobacco cravings has translated their research and found that brisk walks – as short as 20 minutes – can compete with caffeine in terms of enhancing working memory.

Working memory is the ability to store and manipulate information, in the moment, like remembering items on a grocery list after you’ve driven to the store or recalling how each royal is related to one another on The Crown while binge-watching Season 3.

The study, published in Nature Scientific Reports, also shows that exercise may also reduce the negative effects of caffeine withdrawal like headaches, fatigue and crankiness.

Western Exercise and Health Psychology Laboratory director Harry Prapavessis collaborated with graduate student Anisa Morava and former student Matthew Fagan on the study because while it has been demonstrated that both caffeine and exercise improve certain aspects of cognition like attention and alertness, to their knowledge, the two energy boosters had never been compared head-to-head.

The researchers tested one bout of aerobic exercise, which was essentially a 20-minute, brisk walk on a treadmill, against one dose of caffeine (equivalent to approximately one cup of coffee) for improving working memory and found that the brisk walk compared favourably to the caffeine. The results were equivalent in both non-caffeine consumers and caffeine consumers, which is important to know for some coffee drinkers and energy drink guzzlers.

“Healthy individuals drinking two cups of coffee a day are generally okay in the sense that it’s not going to negatively affect most of your physiological functions. However for special populations, caffeine consumption can be problematic and should be limited or reduced,” explains Morava.

These special populations include anxiety sufferers or individuals who experience muscle tremors, as well as pregnant women. People who are high consumers of caffeine, like those who drink more than four cups of coffee a day, are also more at-risk to some of the negative effects of caffeine.

Morava acknowledges that reducing caffeine consumption, whether medically recommended or not, is no simple task but says exercise may assist.

“If people experience withdrawal, an acute, brisk walk may reduce some of the symptoms,” says Morava.

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