How students respond to light exercise can reveal whether you’re getting one of the most important benefits of exercise, a cognitive boost associated with improved mood and enhanced executive function.
Japanese researchers monitored the pupil size of 24 participants during 10 minutes of light exercise and then used neuroimaging to see how the participants’ brains responded to a cognitive task.
It was just a small experiment, but the results showed that the more people’s pupils dilated during light exercise, the bigger they got, the better the cognitive boost they got.
“This finding supports our hypothesis that pupil-related mechanisms are a potential mechanism by which very light exercise enhances frontal cortex activation and executive function,” explained a team of neuroscientists and exercise scientists from the University of Tsukuba in their paper published in August. 2023.
Although it sounds like a strange connection, it’s now well established that exercise, even low-intensity exercises like yoga and walking, can lift our mood and help us focus better on tasks that involve the benefits of the frontal cortex.
But the precise neural activity that leads to this exercise-induced enhancement of function remains poorly understood.
One way to get an idea of what is going on in our brain is through the eyes. previous research has shown that our pupils can reflect deeper neural activity.
To investigate further, the researchers recruited healthy young adults and asked half of them to participate in 10 minutes of very light exercise and the other half to act as a control group and simply rest on an exercise machine.
Before, during and after the training session, the participants’ pupil size was monitored non-invasively, and they were also asked about their mood.
Both groups completed the ERP test before and after the exercise. This was called the Stroop color task and asked whether a word (for example, red or green) matched the color in which it was shown.
While performing this test, the team examined the participants’ prefrontal brain activity using functional near-infrared spectroscopy.
The results showed that light exercise made the participants perform better on cognitive tasks than the control group, and this correlated with increased activity in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with executive functions.
Interestingly, they also showed that the pupils of the exercise group dilated during the exercise, while the pupil size of the control group did not change.
And the more the participant’s pupils dilated during the exercise, the better their cognitive performance when they completed the test at the end.
“These results strongly suggest that the enhancement of prefrontal executive function resulting from very light exercise can be attributed to pupil neural activity,” the press release explained.
“Looking forward, pupil diameter has promising potential as a new biomarker that can be used to predict the effects of exercise on the brain.”
This is the first study to suggest that the part of the central nervous system behind pupil dilation is linked to exercise-induced cognitive performance.
Of course, it’s just a small, preliminary study. The researchers explained that the results are limited by only looking at healthy young adults and an unbalanced group of men and women.
Follow-up studies are needed to confirm that this effect is real. And then we can start teasing out what that means and how we can benefit from it.
But it’s a fascinating new insight into the connection between our brains and eyes, and the way exercise can change how our brains function.
The study was published in NeuroImage.
A version of this article was first published in August 2023.
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