Good nutrition and intensive exercise may improve mental abilities

Good nutrition and intensive exercise may improve mental abilities


Written by James Kingsland on November 3, 2020 — Fact checked by Hilary Guite, FFPH, MRCGP

A study suggests an intensive exercise program boosts cognitive performance and physical fitness in United States Air Force personnel. A nutritional supplement may also have some additional benefits.


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While exercise is known to improve health and cognition, combining it with a nutritional supplement that mimics a Mediterranean diet may provide further advantages.

Scientists at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Abbott Nutrition, and the U.S. Air Force Research Lab found that volunteers who consumed the supplement before and after training sessions had an edge in some measures of fitness and cognition 3 months later.

However, intensive exercise alone improved strength and endurance more than intensive training with the supplement.

On two cognitive performance measures, both the placebo group and the supplement group showed a slight reduction in performance, while other measures improved.

“The physical and mental health benefits of exercise are well known, but this study demonstrates how optimal nutrition can help boost brain function as well,” says study leader Chris Zwilling, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois.

“We are excited by the results because they provide critical insights into how simple dietary changes can make a big difference in helping people be as efficient and productive as possible in today’s world,” he adds.

The research appears in the journal Scientific Reports.

Strength and fitness training

The scientists recruited 148 active-duty male and female Air Force personnel from Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, OH, and randomly assigned them to two groups.

Both groups underwent a 12-week exercise program involving five daily sessions of 45 minutes, including rotating sessions of high-intensity interval training, aerobic fitness, and strength training each week.

One group drank the specially formulated nutritional supplement 30 minutes before and 1 hour after each session, while the second group consumed a placebo drink that looked and tasted the same. The supplement contained 267 calories of energy, while the placebo contained 100 calories.

Neither the researchers nor the participants knew who drank the special supplement and who drank the placebo.

The high-protein supplement contained a wide range of nutrients, including:

  • lutein, a carotenoid vitamin related to beta-carotene and vitamin A found in kale, spinach, avocados, and eggs
  • omega-3 fatty acids, found in oily fish such as mackerel and sardines
  • phospholipids, an essential component of cell membranes
  • beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate, a supplement that helps increase muscle mass and aids recovery after exercise
  • folic acid
  • B vitamins
  • vitamin D

Participants took a series of cognitive and physical fitness tests before and after the exercise program. The cognitive tests assessed their memory, fluid intelligence — the ability to solve novel reasoning problems, executive function, and reaction time.

The exercise-only group had positive improvements in 5 out of 6 physical fitness measures and 4 out of 8 cognitive functioning measures. The research team recorded cognitive functioning increases in:

  • short-term memory
  • episodic memory
  • executive function reaction time
  • fluid intelligence and processing efficiency

The group who also took the supplement had improvements in all six fitness measures and 6 out of 8 cognitive measures. Compared with exercise alone, taking the supplement was associated with significant additional enhancements:

  • working memory increased
  • fluid intelligence reaction time decreased
  • lean muscle mass increased
  • resting heart rate, a measure of physical fitness, decreased

However, some of the figures in the study abstract were inaccurate. The authors have provided updated figures to Medical News Today and the journal.

Furthermore, the figures in the abstract were determined using raw data, which the paper did not provide. There were also some errors in rounding. Therefore, MNT is cautious about the study’s findings while the authors and the journal update the figures.

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