It’s well-known that physical exercise is beneficial not just to physical health but also our mental health. Yet whereas most countries have detailed, evidence-backed guidelines on the type and intensity of exercise required for various physical health benefits, such guidelines do not yet exist for exercise and mood. This is partly due to a lack of necessary evidence. However, a new systematic review in The Journal of Psychology Interdisciplinary and Applied brings us usefully up-to-date on the current findings in this area, collating evidence from 38 relevant studies that examined the associations between exercise intensity, duration and modality and any effects on mood.
If you wanted to ensure your mind was in top gear, which do you think would provide the better preparation – 15 minutes of calm relaxation, or a 15 minute jog?
A study involving 101 undergrad students suggests you’d be better off plumping for the latter.
Evidence had already accumulated showing that relatively brief, moderate aerobic exercise – like going for a brisk walk or a jog – has immediate benefits for mental functioning, especially speed and attentional control. A parallel literature has also documented how brief, aerobic exercise has beneficial effects on your mood, including making you feel more energetic, even when you don’t expect it to. In their new paper in Acta Psychologica, Fabian Legrand and his colleagues bridged these findings by looking to see if the emotional effects of exercise might be at least partly responsible for the cognitive benefits.
They asked their participants to rate how energetic and vigorous they were feeling and then to complete two cognitive tests (versions of the Trail Making Test, which involves drawing lines between numbers and letters as fast and as accurately as possible).
Next, they allocated half their student participants to go for a 15 minute group jog around the campus and the others to spend the same time following group relaxation exercises. Finally, two minutes after the jog/relaxation session, the students answered the same questions as before about their feelings of energy, and then they repeated the cognitive tests.
The students who went for a jog, but not the relaxation students, subsequently showed significant improvement on the version of the Trail Making Test that measures mental speed and attentional control (but not the other that taps memory and cognitive switching). Moreover, this improvement in cognition was fully mediated by their increased feelings of energy and vigour, implying – although not proving conclusively – that the jog boosted cognition through its effects on their subjective sense of having more energy (in contrast, the relaxation group actually felt dramatically less energetic).
Among the study limitations was the fact the relaxation session took place inside, while the jog was outside. Notwithstanding this issue and some others, and while recognising the need for more research, Legrand and his team said that their findings “add weight to recent suggestions that increased feelings of energy may mediate the relationship between aerobic exercise and some aspects of cognitive functioning.”
The effect of playing sport on men’s testosterone levels is well documented. Generally speaking, the winner enjoys a testosterone boost, while the loser experiences the opposite (though far less studied, competition unsurprisingly also affects women’s hormonal levels, though not in the same ways as men’s). The evolutionary-based explanation for the hormonal effects seen in men is that the winner’s testosterone rise acts to increase their aggression and the likelihood that they will seek out more contests, while the loser skulks off to lick their wounds. When it comes to vicarious effects of competition on men’s testosterone, however, the findings are more mixed. There’s some evidence that male sports fans show testosterone gains after seeing their teams win, but other studies have failed to replicate this finding.
A new, small study in Human Nature adds to this literature by examining the hormonal changes (testosterone and cortisol) in fathers watching their children play a football game – a situation in which you might particularly expect to see vicarious hormonal effects since it’s the men’s own kin who are involved.
Alongside the physical jostle, thrust and tug of sport there is a parallel contest involving words. Although this trash talking between players before, during and after games is well known, it is surprisingly unstudied by psychologists. Yet these exchanges play a major role, arguably swinging the outcome of games. Consider an infamous example: the 2006 football world cup final in which Italy’s Marco Materazzi insulted the sister or mother (depending on whose account you believe) of France’s star player Zinadine Zidane, who in turn responded by head butting Materazzi. Zidane was then sent off, with Italy going on to win the game on penalties.
Is trash talking more prevalent in some sports than others? What does trash talk tend to be about? A new exploratory paper in Human Nature is among the first systematic investigations of trash talking in sport, and certainly the first to examine the phenomenon through an evolutionary lens.
When you’re in the middle of a gruelling long-distance run and the pain and fatigue is becoming overwhelming, an obvious strategy is to try to force the subjective experience out of your mind, for example by thinking nice thoughts or focusing on the environment around you. The trouble is, as the physical struggle intensifies, the distraction strategy becomes harder and harder to pull off. According to a new paper in Motivation and Emotion, an alternative approach that holds promise is to practice “cognitive reappraisal” – don’t ignore the sensations as such, but try to view them in a dispassionate way, as if you are a scientist studying running or a journalist reporting on the experience.
For various reasons, children in many countries are increasingly sedentary and childhood obesity is a growing concern. At the same time, research tells us that physical activity is good for children’s minds and bodies, and that if they develop active habits in their youth, they tend to keep them up into adulthood.
It would surely help if children were more active at school, but with growing academic pressures, teachers will tell you that it is difficult to justify sacrificing vital maths and English lessons for more PE classes or games. A possible solution: make academic lessons more physically active. A new trial of a 6-week intervention comprising 18 ten-minute active maths and English lessons, published in Health Education and Behavior, suggests that such an approach has great potential.
It’s well established that elite athletes have a longer life expectancy than the general public. A recent review of over 50 studies comprising half a million people estimated the athletic advantage to be between 4 and 8 years, on average. This comes as little surprise. One can easily imagine how the same genetic endowment and training necessary to develop physical prowess in sport might also manifest in physical health. Now for the first time, a study published in PLOS One (open access) shows that athletes of the mind – chess grandmasters – show the same longevity advantage as athletes of the body.
Sports coaches are always on the look out for new ideas to improve their players’ performance and it’s understandable that insights from psychology and neuroscience hold particular appeal. However, as with other applied fields, it’s not easy to translate neuroscience findings into useful sports interventions. There are also a lot of charlatans who use the mystique of the brain to sell quack sports products and programmes. Without specialist neuroscience training, coaches might struggle to distinguish genuine brain insights from neuro-based flimflam.
It’s in this context that a group of researchers, led by Richard Bailey at the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education in Berlin, thought it would be useful to see which scientifically challenged practices sports coaches use, and whether they are able to identify brain facts from myths. Previous work has identified widespread belief in neuromyths among several other groups, including psychology students, music teachers and neuroscience graduates, but this is the first time sports coaches have been tested.
Reporting their results in Frontiers in Psychology, Bailey and his colleagues found that sports coaches endorsed, on average, just over 40 per cent of the six brain myths presented to them. “The figure is substantial enough to warrant concern,” according to Bailey and his colleagues “because it is likely that these beliefs will shape coaching philosophy and practice.”
Ahead of the world heavyweight boxing championship reunification fight on March 31, 2018, featuring Great Britain’s Anthony Joshua versus Joseph Parker from New Zealand – the first time that two undefeated heavyweight world champions competed in the UK – we trawled the psychology literature looking for intriguing findings involving boxers and other sporting fighters. From the curse of the pre-match smile, to the cognitive biases that sway your choice of greatest ever boxer, here’s the psychology of fighting, digested:
By Emma Young
Listening to music while exercising can make a work-out feel more pleasant. But might having some control over the sound of that music have an even stronger effect? A new study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, suggests that it does. In theory, this approach (known as known as “Jymmin” – gym plus jammin’…) might help injured athletes and other rehab patients to complete beneficial, but painful, exercise programmes. As the researchers, led by Thomas Fritz at the Max Planck Institute for Human Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, note, “Physical pain can present a significant obstacle to the success of physical exercise rehabilitation, increasing negative affect and decreasing patient motivation.”