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Short Bouts of Exercise May Enhance Self-Control and Treat Conditions Like ADHD and Autism

Update Date: Mar 07, 2013 01:42 PM EST

Short bursts of exercise could help improve self-control in adolescents and young adults, a new review of existing research suggests.

Scientists found that short bouts of moderately intense exercise improved self-control in children, teens and young adults up to 35 years old, according to the report published in the March 6 online issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine. 

Researchers say that the results may be because exercise increases blood and oxygen flow in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.  The brain's prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for "executive" functions, plays an essential role in concentration and learning. Researchers believe that functionality of the prefrontal cortex is especially important for children and teens because well-developed higher brain functions are important for academic achievement and other aspects of daily life.

Researchers analyzed 24 past studies that looked at the impact of physical exercise on higher brain functions such as memory, concentration, planning, and decision-making, in three groups: 6 to 12 year olds; 13 to 17 year olds; and 18 to 35 year olds.

Researchers said that 19 of the studies they looked at examined effects of short bouts of exercise and five looked at the impact of regular exercise.

The analysis revealed while regular exercise didn't have much impact on higher brain functions, short concentrated bursts of exercise did boost higher brain function in all three age groups. They found that short bouts of exercise made a small to moderate impact on self-control across all three age groups.

"These positive effects of physical exercise on inhibition/interference control are encouraging and highly relevant, given the importance of inhibitory control and interference control in daily life," researchers wrote in the study.

"Inhibition is essential for regulation of behavior and emotions in social, academic, and sport settings," they added.

Researchers speculated that short bouts of exercise enhanced the cerebral blood flow to the prefrontal areas of the brain, which is responsible for executive brain functions like self-control.

Based on the latest analysis researchers said concentrated bursts of exercise could provide useful treatment for conditions characterized by impaired higher brain functions, such as attention hyperactivity deficit disorder (ADHD) and autism, and may even help stall the development of dementia.

"Given the trend for a more sedentary lifestyle, worldwide ageing and the increasing prevalence of dementia, the results highlight the importance of engaging in physical exercise in the general population," researchers conclude.

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