1. Study suggests exercise incentives do little to spur gym-going

    August 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Case Western Reserve University press release:

    Even among people who had just joined a gym and expected to visit regularly, getting paid to exercise did little to make their commitment stick, according to a new study from Case Western Reserve University.

    The rewards also had no lasting effect: gym visits stabilized after the modest incentives ended.

    Despite timing incentives to when people were already more motivated to exercise, the approach proved ineffective in initiating a healthy behavior that continues to elude most Americans: only 21 percent get a recommended amount of weekly exercise, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

    “They wanted to exercise regularly, and yet their behavior did not match their intent, even with a reward,” said Mariana Carrera, an assistant professor of economics at the Weatherhead School of Management and co-author of the study. “People thought earning the incentive would be easy but were way overoptimistic about how often they’d go.”

    In the study, new gym members intended to visit three times per week but ended up averaging one weekly visit by the end of the six-week study.

    Nearly 95 percent said they expected to visit the gym more than once per week. But by the end of the third month, only about a third had.

    The experiment

    For visiting the gym nine total times during the study (an average of 1.5 times per week), participants were promised one of three modest rewards: a $30 Amazon gift card; a prize item, such as a blender, of equivalent value; or a $60 Amazon gift card. A control group received a $30 Amazon gift card regardless of how often they visited. (The value of incentives was based on what gyms were likely to offer.)

    After the first week, 14 percent did not visit the gym again.

    Incentivized participants showed a slight increase in gym visits in the sixth week — their last chance to make enough visits to earn their prize. But overall, those given incentives made only 0.14 more visits per week than those promised no reward at all.

    Focusing on people when they’re ready to make a change may be misguided,” said Carrera. “Maybe the internal motivation that gets a person to start a gym membership is unrelated to what drives them to earn financial incentives. What’s clear was there was no complementarity in lumping these two motivations together.”

    The group promised the $60 gift card also did not visit the gym more often than those given the $30 gift card or prize.

    Researchers thought that selecting the prize item at the outset might create a sense of ownership and prove to be a more powerful motivator, because failing to hit the target visit rate might feel like a loss. However, while the item induced slightly more visits, the difference was insignificant.


  2. Perceiving oneself as less physically active than peers is linked to a shorter lifespan

    August 7, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Stanford University press release:

    Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about equally active as other people your age?

    Your answer might be linked to your risk of premature death decades from now — no matter how physically active you actually are, according to research by Stanford scholars Octavia Zahrt and Alia Crum.

    The research, appearing July 20 in Health Psychology, finds that people who think they are less active than others in a similar age bracket die younger than those who believe they are more active — even if their actual activity levels are similar.

    “Our findings fall in line with a growing body of research suggesting that our mindsets — in this case, beliefs about how much exercise we are getting relative to others — can play a crucial role in our health,” Crum said.

    Powerful effects of perception

    Crum, an assistant professor of psychology, and Zahrt, a doctoral candidate at the Graduate School of Business, analyzed surveys from more than 60,000 U.S. adults from three national data sets. The surveys documented participants’ levels of physical activity, health and personal background, among other measures. In one of the samples, participants wore an accelerometer to measure their activity over a week.

    Zahrt and Crum were interested in one question in particular: “Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about as active as other persons your age?”

    The researchers then viewed death records from 2011, which was 21 years after the first survey was conducted. Controlling for physical activity and using statistical models that accounted for age, body mass index, chronic illnesses and other factors, they found that individuals who believed that they were less active than others were up to 71 percent more likely to die in the follow-up period than individuals who believed that they were more active than their peers.

    Fit on the Farm?

    Much of the study’s inspiration derived from Zahrt’s experience when she arrived at Stanford. Zahrt, a native of Germany who previously studied in France and England, had stayed in shape by biking to school and making occasional trips to the gym.

    But at Stanford, Zahrt said it seemed that “everyone was incredibly active” and perhaps she wasn’t exercising as much as she should.

    “Suddenly, I felt like I had done something wrong all these years,” Zahrt said. “I felt unhealthy and I was stressed about fitting more exercise into my busy schedule. I really had a negative mindset.”

    While taking a health psychology class taught by Crum, Zahrt learned more about the effects of mindsets on health outcomes. For example, Crum’s prior research shows that the health benefits people get out of everyday activities depend in part on their mindsets — that is, whether or not they believe that they are getting good exercise. In her 2007 study, Crum made a group of hotel room attendants aware that the activity they got at work met recommended levels of physical activity. Through this shift in mindsets, the workers, many of whom had previously perceived themselves as inactive, experienced reductions in weight, body fat and blood pressure, among other positive outcomes. Zahrt wondered if many people, like her, had negative mindsets about their physical activity levels because of social comparison with more active peers, and if this might be harming their health. Her class paper on this topic sparked the collaboration leading to the published study.

    How mindsets influence us

    Zahrt and Crum offer possible explanations for mindsets and perceptions having such powerful effects on health. One is that perceptions can affect motivation, both positively and negatively. Those who are made aware of their healthy activity levels — like the hotel room attendants in Crum’s 2007 study — can build on them and exercise more. Those who deem themselves unfit are more likely to remain inactive, fueling feelings of fear, stress or depression that negatively affect their health.

    The researchers also cite the established influence of placebo effects, where patients who think they are getting a treatment experience physiological changes without receiving actual treatment. In the same way, people who believe they are getting good exercise may experience more physiological benefits from their exercise than those who believe they aren’t getting enough exercise.

    “Placebo effects are very robust in medicine. It is only logical to expect that they would play a role in shaping the benefits of behavioral health as well,” Crum said.

    The researchers emphasize that the study is correlational in nature and thus does not prove that perceptions of inactivity cause earlier death. However, other experimental research — such as Crum’s 2007 study — does suggest a causal nature to the link between perceived amounts of exercise and health outcomes.

    Taking mindsets seriously

    “So much effort, notably in public health campaigns, is geared toward motivating people to change their behavior: eat healthier, exercise more and stress less,” Crum said. “But an important variable is being left out of the equation: people’s mindsets about those healthy behaviors.”

    In fact, a growing volume of research from Crum and other labs shows that perceptions and mindsets predict health and longevity, for example, in the domains of stress, diet and obesity.

    That our mindsets could have such potent effects on our physiology may seem provocative and unlikely at first glance, but Crum reminds us that we shouldn’t be surprised by these results considering the “everyday experiences where our beliefs or a simple thought have very palpable and physiological effects.”

    “In the case of stress, a thought about something going wrong can make us sweat or [become] shaky or increase our heart rate,” Crum continued. “With sexual arousal, a simple thought or idea can have immediate physical effects. We experience these things regularly, and yet we’re not cataloguing them as something that matters. For whatever reason — dualism or a prioritization of the material — we tend to ignore the fact that our thoughts, mindsets and expectations are shaping our everyday physiology.”

    How can people use this finding? Many Americans think that vigorous exercise in a gym is the only way to attain a proper activity level, according to Zahrt and Crum. But being mindful of and feeling good about activities you do every day — like taking the stairs, walking or biking to work, or cleaning the house — could be an easy first step for everyone to benefit their health.

    “It’s time that we start taking the role of mindsets in health more seriously,” Crum said. “In the pursuit of health and longevity, it is important to adopt not only healthy behaviors, but also healthy thoughts.”


  3. How physical exercise prevents dementia

    August 2, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main press release:

    Numerous studies have shown that physical exercise seems beneficial in the prevention of cognitive impairment and dementia in old age. Now researchers at Goethe University Frankfurt have explored in one of the first studies worldwide how exercise affects brain metabolism.

    In order to further advance current state of knowledge on the positive influence of physical activity on the brain, gerontologists and sports physicians at Goethe University Frankfurt have examined the effects of regular exercise on brain metabolism and memory of 60 participants aged between 65 and 85 in a randomised controlled trial. Their conclusion: regular physical exercise not only enhances fitness but also has a positive impact on brain metabolism.

    As the researchers report in the current issue of the medical journal Translational Psychiatry, they thoroughly examined all the participants in the SMART study (Sport and Metabolism in Older Persons, an MRT Study) by assessing movement-related parameters, cardiopulmonary fitness and cognitive performance. In addition, magnetic resonance tomography (MRT) and magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) were used to measure brain metabolism and brain structure. Following this examination, the participants mounted an exercise bike three times a week over a period of 12 weeks. The 30-minute training sessions were individually adapted to each participant’s performance level. The participants were examined again after the end of the programme in order to document the effects of this physical activity on brain metabolism, cognitive performance and brain structure. The researchers also investigated to what extent exercise had led to an improvement in the participants’ physical fitness. The study was conducted by the Gerontology Department of the Institute of General Medicine (headed by Professor Johannes Pantel) and the Department of Sports Medicine (led by Professor Winfried Banzer).

    As expected, physical activity had influenced brain metabolism: it prevented an increase in choline. The concentration of this metabolite often rises as a result of the increased loss of nerve cells, which typically occurs in the case of Alzheimer’s disease. Physical exercise led to stable cerebral choline concentrations in the training group, whereas choline levels increased in the control group. The participants’ physical fitness also improved: they showed increased cardiac efficiency after the training period. Overall, these findings suggest that physical exercise not only improves physical fitness but also protects cells.


  4. Brains evolved to need exercise

    July 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Arizona press release:

    Mounting scientific evidence shows that exercise is good not only for our bodies, but for our brains. Yet, exactly why physical activity benefits the brain is not well understood.

    In a new article published in the journal Trends in Neurosciences, University of Arizona researchers suggest that the link between exercise and the brain is a product of our evolutionary history and our past as hunter-gatherers.

    UA anthropologist David Raichlen and UA psychologist Gene Alexander, who together run a research program on exercise and the brain, propose an “adaptive capacity model” for understanding, from an evolutionary neuroscience perspective, how physical activity impacts brain structure and function.

    Their argument: As humans transitioned from a relatively sedentary apelike existence to a more physically demanding hunter-gatherer lifestyle, starting around 2 million years ago, we began to engage in complex foraging tasks that were simultaneously physically and mentally demanding, and that may explain how physical activity and the brain came to be so connected.

    “We think our physiology evolved to respond to those increases in physical activity levels, and those physiological adaptations go from your bones and your muscles, apparently all the way to your brain,” said Raichlen, an associate professor in the UA School of Anthropology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

    “It’s very odd to think that moving your body should affect your brain in this way — that exercise should have some beneficial impact on brain structure and function — but if you start thinking about it from an evolutionary perspective, you can start to piece together why that system would adaptively respond to exercise challenges and stresses,” he said.

    Having this underlying understanding of the exercise-brain connection could help researchers come up with ways to enhance the benefits of exercise even further, and to develop effective interventions for age-related cognitive decline or even neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

    Notably, the parts of the brain most taxed during a complex activity such as foraging — areas that play a key role in memory and executive functions such as problem solving and planning — are the same areas that seem to benefit from exercise in studies.

    “Foraging is an incredibly complex cognitive behavior,” Raichlen said. “You’re moving on a landscape, you’re using memory not only to know where to go but also to navigate your way back, you’re paying attention to your surroundings. You’re multitasking the entire time because you’re making decisions while you’re paying attention to the environment, while you are also monitoring your motor systems over complex terrain. Putting all that together creates a very complex multitasking effort.”

    The adaptive capacity model could help explain research findings such as those published by Raichlen and Alexander last year showing that runners’ brains appear to be more connected than brains of non-runners.

    The model also could help inform interventions for the cognitive decline that often accompanies aging — in a period in life when physical activity levels tend to decline as well.

    “What we’re proposing is, if you’re not sufficiently engaged in this kind of cognitively challenging aerobic activity, then this may be responsible for what we often see as healthy brain aging, where people start to show some diminished cognitive abilities,” said Alexander, a UA professor of psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience and physiological sciences. “So the natural aging process might really be part of a reduced capacity in response to not being engaged enough.”

    Reduced capacity refers to what can happen in organ systems throughout the body when they are deprived of exercise.

    “Our organ systems adapt to the stresses they undergo,” said Raichlen, an avid runner and expert on running. “For example, if you engage in exercise, your cardiovascular system has to adapt to expand capacity, be it through enlarging your heart or increasing your vasculature, and that takes energy. So if you’re not challenging it in that way — if you’re not engaging in aerobic exercise — to save energy, your body simply reduces that capacity.”

    In the case of the brain, if it is not being stressed enough it may begin to atrophy. This may be especially concerning, considering how much more sedentary humans’ lifestyles have become.

    “Our evolutionary history suggests that we are, fundamentally, cognitively engaged endurance athletes, and that if we don’t remain active we’re going to have this loss of capacity in response to that,” said Alexander, who studies brain aging and Alzheimer’s disease as a member of the UA’s Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute. “So there really may be a mismatch between our relatively sedentary lifestyles of today and how we evolved.”

    Alexander and Raichlen say future research should look at how different levels of exercise intensity, as well as different types of exercise, or exercise paired specifically with cognitive tasks, affect the brain.

    For example, exercising in a novel environment that poses a new mental challenge, may prove to be especially beneficial, Raichlen said.

    “Most of the research in this area puts people in a cognitively impoverished environment. They put people in a lab and have them run on a treadmill or exercise bike, and you don’t really have to do as much, so it’s possible that we’re missing something by not increasing novelty,” he said.

    Alexander and Raichlen say they hope the adaptive capacity model will help advance research on exercise and the brain.

    “This evolutionary neuroscience perspective is something that’s been generally lacking in the field,” Alexander said. “And we think this might be helpful to advance research and help develop some new specific hypotheses and ways to identify more universally effective interventions that could be helpful to everyone.”


  5. Sport feels less strenuous if you believe it’s doing you good

    July 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Freiburg press release:

    “Sport is too much like hard work.” For many, that is reason enough to pass when it comes to exercise. But does sport really have to make you break into a sweat? Psychologist Hendrik Mothes of the Department of Sport Science at the University of Freiburg and his team discovered that one’s own expectations have a major influence on just how strenuous one perceives a unit of sport to be. The researchers also found that how the person doing the sport felt about himself or herself played a big role in this feeling of strain. Moreover, it can sometimes be smart to enlist help from supposedly useful sports products — if you believe in them. The results of the study have been published in PLOS ONE.

    The research team invited 78 men and women between 18 and 32 into the laboratory, where these test persons rode a stationary bicycle-ergometer for 30 minutes. Beforehand, they were asked to say how athletic they thought they were. And they were asked to put on a compression shirt produced by a well-known sporting goods manufacturer. During their exercise, they were asked every five minutes what level of strenuousness they were experiencing. Right before the exercise, the participants were assigned to different groups and shown one of several short films that either stressed the positive health effects of the coming cycling activity, or dampened the expectations. And the compression shirts were mentioned: In some of the films, the shirts were praised as an additional help in cycling, while other films indicated that they would make the test persons’ sweating comparable. “What the participants did not know was that we used these film clips with the aim of influencing their expectations of the coming cycling session,” Mothes says.

    The results showed, as expected, a self-fulfilling prophecy that the training unit was less strenuous for the test persons when they started out with a positive attitude. The more athletic the participants perceived themselves to be, the stronger this effect was. However, positive expectations did not help participants who considered themselves not very athletic. They found the training unit strenuous anyway. The researchers also found that believing in the compression shirt helped. To the subjects who considered themselves athletic, it made no difference; but for those who said they weren’t much good at sports, there was quite an effect. “Merely the belief that the shirt would help, did help the ‘unsporty’ subjects to have a lower perception of strenuousness during the exercise,” Mothes explains.

    These findings are further evidence that the placebo effect works when you do sport. And they show that is it does make a difference what you think about sport and its effects. “Not least, the findings impressively show for all those who don’t consider themselves to be great sportsmen and -women – the right product really can make sport more pleasant, if ‘only’ you believe in it.”


  6. Alzheimer’s disease study links brain health, physical activity

    July 7, 2017 by Ashley

    From the IOS Press press release:

    People at risk for Alzheimer’s disease who do more moderate-intensity physical activity, but not light-intensity physical activity, are more likely to have healthy patterns of glucose metabolism in their brain, according to a new UW-Madison study.

    Results of the research were published online in Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. Senior author Dr. Ozioma Okonkwo, assistant professor of medicine, is a researcher at the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. First author Ryan Dougherty is a graduate student studying under the direction of Dr. Dane B. Cook, professor of kinesiology and a co-author of the study, and Dr. Okonkwo. The research involved 93 members of the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention (WRAP), which with more than 1,500 registrants is the largest parental history Alzheimer’s risk study group in the world.

    Researchers used accelerometers to measure the daily physical activity of participants, all of whom are in late middle-age and at high genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease, but presently show no cognitive impairment. Activity levels were measured for one week, quantified, and analyzed. This approach allowed scientists to determine the amount of time each subject spent engaged in light, moderate, and vigorous levels of physical activity. Light physical activity is equivalent to walking slowly, while moderate is equivalent to a brisk walk and vigorous a strenuous run. Data on the intensities of physical activity were then statistically analyzed to determine how they corresponded with glucose metabolism — a measure of neuronal health and activity — in areas of the brain known to have depressed glucose metabolism in people with Alzheimer’s disease. To measure brain glucose metabolism, researchers used a specialized imaging technique called 18F-fluorodeoxyglucose positron emission tomography (FDG-PET).

    Moderate physical activity was associated with healthier (greater levels of) glucose metabolism in all brain regions analyzed. Researchers noted a step-wise benefit: subjects who spent at least 68 minutes per day engaged in moderate physical activity showed better glucose metabolism profiles than those who spent less time.

    “This study has implications for guiding exercise ‘prescriptions’ that could help protect the brain from Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dougherty. “While many people become discouraged about Alzheimer’s disease because they feel there’s little they can do to protect against it, these results suggest that engaging in moderate physical activity may slow down the progression of the disease.”

    “Seeing a quantifiable connection between moderate physical activity and brain health is an exciting first step,” said Okonkwo. He explained that ongoing research is focusing on better elucidating the neuroprotective effect of exercise against Alzheimer’s disease.


  7. Alzheimer’s disease study links brain health and physical activity

    June 30, 2017 by Ashley

    From the IOS Press press release:

    People at risk for Alzheimer’s disease who do more moderate-intensity physical activity, but not light-intensity physical activity, are more likely to have healthy patterns of glucose metabolism in their brain, according to a new UW-Madison study.

    Results of the research were published today online in Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. Senior author Dr. Ozioma Okonkwo, assistant professor of medicine, is a researcher at the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. First author Ryan Dougherty is a graduate student studying under the direction of Dr. Dane B. Cook, professor of kinesiology and a co-author of the study, and Dr. Okonkwo. The research involved 93 members of the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention (WRAP), which with more than 1,500 registrants is the largest parental history Alzheimer’s risk study group in the world.

    Researchers used accelerometers to measure the daily physical activity of participants, all of whom are in late middle-age and at high genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease, but presently show no cognitive impairment. Activity levels were measured for one week, quantified, and analyzed. This approach allowed scientists to determine the amount of time each subject spent engaged in light, moderate, and vigorous levels of physical activity. Light physical activity is equivalent to walking slowly, while moderate is equivalent to a brisk walk and vigorous a strenuous run. Data on the intensities of physical activity were then statistically analyzed to determine how they corresponded with glucose metabolism–a measure of neuronal health and activity–in areas of the brain known to have depressed glucose metabolism in people with Alzheimer’s disease. To measure brain glucose metabolism, researchers used a specialized imaging technique called 18F-fluorodeoxyglucose positron emission tomography (FDG-PET).

    Moderate physical activity was associated with healthier (greater levels of) glucose metabolism in all brain regions analyzed. Researchers noted a step-wise benefit: subjects who spent at least 68 minutes per day engaged in moderate physical activity showed better glucose metabolism profiles than those who spent less time.

    “This study has implications for guiding exercise ‘prescriptions’ that could help protect the brain from Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dougherty. “While many people become discouraged about Alzheimer’s disease because they feel there’s little they can do to protect against it, these results suggest that engaging in moderate physical activity may slow down the progression of the disease.”

    “Seeing a quantifiable connection between moderate physical activity and brain health is an exciting first step,” said Okonkwo. He explained that ongoing research is focusing on better elucidating the neuroprotective effect of exercise against Alzheimer’s disease. To investigate this further, the team is recruiting individuals with concerns about their memory for a national clinical trial called EXERT to test whether physical exercise can slow the progression of early memory problems caused by Alzheimer’s disease.


  8. Study suggests single exercise session can have positive effects on brain

    June 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the IOS Press press release:

    In a new review of the effects of acute exercise published in Brain Plasticity, researchers not only summarize the behavioral and cognitive effects of a single bout of exercise, but also summarize data from a large number of neurophysiological and neurochemical studies in both humans and animals showing the wide range of brain changes that result from a single session of physical exercise (i.e., acute exercise).

    There is currently enormous interest in the beneficial effects of aerobic exercise on a wide range of brain functions including mood, memory, attention, motor/reaction times, and even creativity. Understanding the immediate effects of a single bout of exercise is the first step to understanding how the positive effects of exercise may accrue over time to cause long-lasting changes in select brain circuits.

    According to principal investigator Wendy A. Suzuki, PhD, Professor of Neural Science and Psychology in the Center for Neural Science, New York University, “Exercise interventions are currently being used to help address everything from cognitive impairments in normal aging, minimal cognitive impairment (MCI), and Alzheimer’s disease to motor deficits in Parkinson’s disease and mood states in depression. Our review highlights the neural mechanisms and pathways by which exercise might produce these clinically relevant effects.”

    The investigators summarized a large and growing body of research examining the changes that occur at the cognitive/behavioral, neurophysiological, and neurochemical levels after a single bout of physical exercise in both humans and animals. They reviewed brain imaging and electrophysiological studies, including electroencephalography (EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). They then turned to neurochemical studies, including lactate, glutamate and glutamine metabolism, effects on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis through cortisol secretion, and neurotrophins such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). Neurotransmitter studies of monoamines (dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine and norepinephrine), acetylcholine, glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) were reviewed, as well as neuromodulators such as endogenous opioids and endocannabinoids.

    This extensive review resulted in three main observations. First, the most consistent behavioral effects of acute exercise are improved executive function, enhanced mood, and decreased stress levels. Second, neurophysiological and neurochemical changes that have been reported after acute exercise show that widespread brain areas and brain systems are activated. Third, one of the biggest open questions in this area is the relationship between the central neurochemical changes following acute exercise, that have mainly been described in rodents, and the behavioral changes seen after acute exercise reported in humans. Bridging this gap will be an important area of future study.

    Co-author Julia C. Basso, PhD, post-doctoral research fellow, Center for Neural Science at New York University, commented, “The studies presented in this review clearly demonstrate that acute exercise has profound effects on brain chemistry and physiology, which has important implications for cognitive enhancements in healthy populations and symptom remediation in clinical populations.”


  9. Building mental toughness off the field: It’s all about practice

    June 10, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Miami press release:

    By the end of each academic semester, most college students struggle with a drop in attention spans and increased stress, especially student-athletes. Athletes know dedicated practice and physical training lead to excellence. Much less is known about mental training to deal with the psychological pressures of competitive athletics. One form of mental training, involving mindfulness, trains participants to focus attention on the present moment and observe one’s thoughts and feelings without emotional reactivity.

    A recent University of Miami study conducted in the laboratory of neuroscientist Amishi Jha, associate professor in the UM College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychology, asks if college football players can be trained to be mentally tough and resilient. The research paper titled, “‘We Are Talking About Practice’: the Influence of Mindfulness vs. Relaxation Training on Athletes’ Attention and Well-Being over High-Demand Intervals,” was recently published online in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement. Jha’s lab collaborated with mindfulness expert Scott Rogers, Miami Law professor and director of the Mindfulness in Law Program.

    “Our research suggests that the mind, like the body, needs regular mental exercise to keep it cognitively and emotionally fit. What struck us about these results is that both relaxation and mindfulness helped well-being, but only mindfulness training benefitted players’ attention — something student athletes need both on and off the field,” said Jha.

    Jha’s research team found that greater practice and program adherence in a mindfulness training program, but not a matched relaxation training program, leads to more stable attention and fewer attentional lapses in football players.

    The study’s first author, UM psychology Ph.D. candidate Joshua Rooks, knows first-hand how demanding the life of a football player can be. Rooks, a former college football player who practiced mindfulness during his time as a tight end for the Northwestern University Wildcats, joined Jha’s lab in 2012.

    In the current study, Rooks monitored the attention and emotional well-being of student-athletes on the UM football team over four weeks, during which Rogers delivered two matched training programs to player subgroups. One group of 56 players received mindfulness training (MT), while the other group made up of 44 players received relaxation training (RT). The players in the MT group participated in breathing exercises, body scans and mindful awareness sessions, while the RT group did relaxation exercises, place-guided imagery and listened to relaxing music. Players’ attention was measured using the Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART), a test designed to promote mind wandering and measure attentional performance lapses. Their emotional well-being was measured by questionnaires about their mood, anxiety and depression levels.

    The four weeks of this project occurred during their pre-season training when players faced intensive demands, both academically and physically. Prior research found that during times of high demand, such as the academic semester and military pre-deployment training, students and soldiers experience degraded attention and emotional well-being. In this study, football players’ attention and emotional well-being degraded from the beginning to the end of the four weeks. Yet high adherence to the MT program, but not the RT program, protected athletes’ sustained attention. The study also found that greater engagement in both MT and RT protected against a decline in well-being and pointed to practice as the key to benefitting from MT program.

    Professional sports teams have long used relaxation training with players. Recently, some teams have also introduced mindfulness training. High performance psychology coach, Michael Gervais, who serves as an advisor to Jha’s lab for their work, has achieved success by offering mindfulness to pro-athletes, such as the Seattle Seahawks.

    “This is the type of research that moves the needle from theory to application. The hallmarks of elite performance within the most hostile environments are the ability to be tough minded, adjust to unpredictable demands, and to properly attend to the task at hand,” said Gervais.

    In addition to its potential to help athletes’ attention and well-being, mindfulness training has been examined in soldiers during their high-demand pre-deployment training intervals. Prior studies have found that these intervals deplete attention and degrade emotional well-being.

    “Research like this is very important as the Army explores mindfulness training as a possible enabler to Soldier readiness,” said Major General Walter E. Piatt, Commanding General for the 10th Mountain Division, and an advisory committee member of the Mindfulness Based Attention and Training (MBAT) Project in Jha’s lab.


  10. Light exposure in the evening improves performance in the final spurt

    June 2, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Universität Basel press release:

    Many sports events take place late in the evening, during television prime time. At this time of day, however, many athletes often fail to perform at their best due to their sleep-wake cycle. In a study headed by Professor Arno Schmidt-Trucksäss, Raphael Knaier and colleagues at the University of Basel investigated whether light exposure before a cycling time trial can compensate for this disadvantage. The Sports and Exercise Medicine division, as well as Professor Christian Cajochen at the Centre for Chronobiology, took part in this extensive investigation involving 74 young male athletes.

    It is well known that blue light reduces the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. The researchers tested the hypothesis that this suppression of melatonin could improve an athlete’s endurance during a 12-minute cycling time trial. They randomly divided the participants into three groups and exposed them to either bright light, blue monochromatic light or control light for an hour. This light exposure was immediately followed by the performance test on the bicycle ergometer.

    Bright light is less effective

    Exposure to blue light significantly improved the athletes’ ability to increase their performance during the final spurt of the time trial. This increase was defined as the ratio of the performance measured in the first minute to that of the last minute of the test. The subjects’ improved performance in the final spurt also correlated with the amount of blue light. This light was able to effectively suppress the melatonin and thus influence the athletes’ sleep-wake cycle.

    Compared to the control light, bright light led to a small increase in overall performance, but the difference was not significant. “Since even minor differences are relevant in top-level sport, however, this should be investigated more closely in further studies,” commented Professor Schmidt-Trucksäss.