Physical activity, task complexity and cognitive performance

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Physical activity (PA) in school improves academic readiness and cognition, yet little is known about the independent influences of type and intensity of PA under varying cognitive demands. Previous research has examined the dose-response effects of PA on cognitive performance; however, such studies have focused on the type of PA, not the attentional cues of the environment. No single study has attempted to differentiate the effect of both PA intensity and cognitive demands as a task on cognition using advanced technology. Although studies on treadmills have high ecological validity, such studies require minimal cognitive decision-making and thus do not reflect the complexity of how we navigate the real-world or gameplay. Additionally, the effect of PA with varied cognitive demand on cognitive performance have not yet been characterized across the lifespan. Therefore, the goal of this dissertation was to conduct a series of three research studies using a cross-sectional approach to develop a dual-tasking paradigm and PA intervention in a virtual reality (VR) environment, the effectiveness of an acute bout of PA using VR treadmill and the age differences of PA using VR on cognitive performance in younger and older adults. Study 1 developed VR technology to measure cognition through behavioral and physiological responses. Heart rate and accelerometry data were used to validate energy expenditure, and behavioral responses of reaction time and accuracy were measured for cognitive performance. Study 2 examined the effect of an acute bout of PA, developed by the Study 1 PA protocol, on core executive functions, including attention, short-term working memory, response switching and inhibition control in younger and older adults. Study 3 determined how healthy younger and older adults responded to VR conditions of different task complexities and physical movements. Results demonstrated that PA using VR treadmill was valid to measure cognitive performance, and there was a beneficial effect of PA during walking and fast-paced walking rather than a standing condition on behavioral responses of reaction time and accuracy (Study 1). Also, acute PA using VR significantly influenced on core executive functions of reaction time, but not accuracy regardless of adults’ age (Study 2). Lastly, there was a significant two-way interaction between exercise intensity and cognitive demand on cognitive performance of reaction time in younger adults, but not older adults (Study 3). Taken together, the results of this research series suggest that acute bout of PA using technology can be applied to school settings such as motor skill learning in sports context or game-based complex movements in physical education class that value not only for physical performance but also in the cognitive domain across the lifespan.


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