Does being physically fit improve your attention span?

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A study published in Scientific Reports shows that better physical fitness is associated with better attention and concentration among adolescent students.

Study: Physical fitness is related to concentration performance in adolescents. Image Credit: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock.comStudy: Physical fitness is related to concentration performance in adolescents. Image Credit: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock.com

Background

Physical fitness is associated with better physical and mental health across the lifespan. Evidence indicates that individuals with better physical fitness perform better in cognition and attention tests, have better academic performance, and achieve more cognitive benefits from physical activity interventions.

Adolescence is a vital period for brain development wherein prominent changes in the prefrontal cortex and limbic brain regions can be evidenced. These two brain regions play vital roles in regulating emotions and cognitive functions.

During adolescence, cognitive functioning evolves continuously until reaching a mature level of performance in early adulthood.  

Physical fitness, determined by a combination of regular physical activity and genetically inherited ability, positively impacts brain development and cognitive functioning.

Better physical fitness is associated with higher grey matter volume in the hippocampus and basal ganglia, higher white matter microstructure, and higher thickness of the rostral anterior cingulate cortex. All these brain regions are associated with attention and cognition functioning.

In this study, scientists have investigated the association between physical fitness and attention level among adolescent students.

They have systematically assessed the association of five major fitness components, including speed, endurance, strength, coordination, and flexibility, with the level of attention.

Study design

The study was conducted on 140 adolescent students aged 15 to 18 years. A widely-used and well-validated fitness test, namely the German Motor Test, was carried out to assess students' physical fitness. The test measured all five components of physical fitness.

Specifically, a 20-meter sprint and a 6-minute running test were conducted to measure speed and endurance. Push-ups, sit-ups, and standing long jump were carried out to measure strength. Backward balancing and sideways jumping were carried out to measure coordination, and a stand-and-reach test was conducted to measure flexibility.

A widely used d2-test of Attention was carried out to determine students' attention levels. Three standard scores, including the concentration performance, error, and speed scores, were estimated from the test.

Important observations

The study found that the overall physical fitness of students is positively associated with their concentration performance scores and speed scores and negatively related to their error scores. Almost all the components of physical fitness showed significant associations with three attentional variables.

Further statistical analysis revealed that the components of physical fitness collectively explain 26% of the variance in attentional test performance. Except for physical speed, all other elements of physical fitness showed a significant positive association with students' attention levels.

While physical endurance and flexibility significantly predicted the attentional test's working speed, physical strength, and coordination predicted the error score considerably.

This indicates that students with better endurance and flexibility would perform faster in the attentional test. In contrast, students with better strength and coordination would make fewer errors and would detect the test targets more accurately.    

Study significance

The study finds a significant positive association between physical fitness and attention level in adolescents aged 15 to 18.

The study's findings indicate that higher physical fitness can benefit performances requiring a high level of attention and concentration.

The study provides an overview of the impact of five major components of physical fitness on the attention level. It shows that all other components significantly and positively influence students' attention levels except for physical speed.

As the scientists mentioned, students in the study belong to high-income families. Thus, there is a possibility that they practice regular physical exercise outside school, which can significantly impact their overall physical fitness.

Therefore, studies involving students from different socio-economic backgrounds must produce more generalizable results.     

The study highlights that regular physical activity should be promoted in schools to improve adolescent students' physical fitness and attention levels.

Journal reference:
Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta

Written by

Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta

Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta is a science communicator who believes in spreading the power of science in every corner of the world. She has a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree and a Master's of Science (M.Sc.) in biology and human physiology. Following her Master's degree, Sanchari went on to study a Ph.D. in human physiology. She has authored more than 10 original research articles, all of which have been published in world renowned international journals.

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