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Challenging Sports With Complex Movement May Boost Mental Fitness

A new study suggests that people who engage in challenging sports requiring complex movements and interactions with other players may enjoy greater cognitive fitness (defined as an optimized ability to reason, remember, learn, plan and adapt).

The findings are published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

It’s well-established that good physical fitness is linked to better cognitive health. And since cognitive function is associated with academic achievement, career success and mental health, there is a need to understand how the cognitive benefits of long-term exercise can be optimized.

In the new study, Swiss researchers from the University of Basel and their Japanese colleagues from the University of Tsukuba conducted a large-scale analysis to identify which types of exercise are most associated with cognitive fitness.

After analyzing 80 studies, the research team found that coordinated and challenging sports that require complex movement patterns and interaction with fellow players are the most beneficial for cognitive fitness. Endurance training, strength training or a mix of these components also seem to improve cognitive performance, but not as much.

“To coordinate during a sport seems to be even more important than the total volume of sporting activity,” said Dr. Sebastian Ludyga from the University of Basel.

In fact, a greater amount of physical activity does not necessarily lead to a correspondingly higher level of mental fitness. Longer exercise sessions are only linked to a greater improvement of cognitive performance when performed over a longer period of time.

Just like our physical condition, cognitive performance changes over the course of our lives. There is great potential for improvement during childhood (cognitive development phase) and during old age (cognitive degradation phase), according to the research.

However, the research group from the Department of Sport, Exercise and Health (DSBG) at the University of Basel was unable to find an indicator of effectiveness within the varying age groups.

In fact, the team found that the ages of people engaged in sporting activities do not have to be fundamentally different in order to improve cognitive performance. In other words, different age groups can be combined for a common goal during sports.

“This is already being implemented selectively with joint exercise programs for children and their grandparents,” says Professor Uwe Pühse from the University of Basel. Such programs could thus be further expanded.

Previous research has shown that men and women experience different physical effects from the same amount of sports activities. However, the research team has now been able to verify this for mental fitness. Men accordingly benefit more from sporting activity.

Differences between the sexes are particularly evident in the intensity of movement, but not in the type of sport. A hard workout seems to be particularly worthwhile for boys and men. Paired with a gradual increase in intensity, this leads to a significantly greater improvement in cognitive performance over a longer period of time.

In contrast, the positive effect on women and girls disappears if the intensity is increased too quickly. The results suggest that they should choose low to medium intensity sporting activities if they want to increase their cognitive fitness.

The study, titled “Systematic review and meta-analysis investigating moderators of long-term effects of exercise on cognition in healthy individuals” is published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

Source: University of Basel

Challenging Sports With Complex Movement May Boost Mental Fitness

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Challenging Sports With Complex Movement May Boost Mental Fitness. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 18 Apr 2020 (Originally: 18 Apr 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 18 Apr 2020
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