Harry Prapavessis, director of the Exercise and Health Psychology Laboratory at Western University in Ontario, Canada, led the study. He and fellow researchers Matthew Fagan and Anisa Morava compared the effects of caffeine and exercise on short-term memory.
To do so, researchers randomly assigned participants to a group. Those who consumed caffeine and those who did not.
Then, researchers used an n-back test in which participants are provided with a random list of items and a target. Then, they must identify the item that appeared a specified number of times before. So if the test dolled out a list of numbers (4, 7, 3, 9 and 5) and the test asked, n - 1, asking if the number 1 was displayed one card ago, the correct answer would be no, because the number 9 was displayed before the number 5.
For the recent study, researchers tasked participants with reviewing a list of items, which are typically numbers in n-back tests, and identifying the repetition. Researchers tested when participants could spot repeated items up to three items back in the list. The better the test takers did on the task, the more apparent it became about how much information their working memory could store and could then recall.
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For the first part of the study, participants took n-back tests before and after acute exercise and consuming caffeine, depending on the group they were in.
Part two of the study focused on caffeine withdrawal. Caffeine drinkers took an n-back test after 12 hours of caffeine withdrawal.
The results showed that after 20 minutes on the treadmill and consuming one serving of caffeine, similar improvements in participant's working memory emerged. Researchers found that a bout of exercise can be as effective as caffeine in improving mood and focus. Plus, there’s no concern for side effects of consuming too much caffeine, such as headache, anxiety, increased heart rate and insomnia.
This new study comes months after another one about how exercising multiple times a week can stave off Alzheimer’s disease. Although more research is needed, researchers discovered groups who participated in aerobic exercise and stretching and toning had similar cognitive ability levels.