Few people would disagree with the notion that exercise will make you stronger. Those same folks would likely agree that good nutrition will keep you healthy. But one question those people may not know how to answer is will exercise and good nutrition make you smarter?
A team of researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign asked that question. They also designed a 12-week, double-blind control trial to try and find the answer. They published their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.
148 active-duty Air Force airmen were assigned randomly to one of two groups. Both groups were put on an exercise program which included strength training combined with high-intensity interval aerobic challenges.
However, one group also received a special boost. Twice a day, they received a protein beverage with some special ingredients. Those included vitamin D, B vitamins, DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid, phospholipids, lutein and a muscle-promoting compound called HMB. These ingredients have all been shown in previous research to have positive impacts on both physical and cognitive health and performance.
As you might imagine, both groups got stronger and more powerful. Both groups also saw their cognitive function improve. The gains were better in the group receiving the nutrient drink twice daily. Based on this, we can answer the title question with a qualified “yes.” Exercise and nutrition affect both physical and cognitive health.
To ensure the quality of the study design and the accuracy of results, a placebo drink, lacking in the added nutrients, was used with the second group. Additionally, neither the participants or the researchers knew which airmen received which drink.
“The exercise intervention alone improved strength and endurance, mobility and stability, and participants also saw increases in several measures of cognitive function. They had better episodic memory and processed information more efficiently at the end of the 12 weeks. And they did better on tests that required them to solve problems they had never encountered before, an aptitude called fluid intelligence,” said Aron Barbey, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who led the study with postdoctoral researcher Christopher Zwilling.
“Those who also consumed the nutritional supplement saw all of these improvements and more. For example, they were better able to retain new information in their working memory and had quicker responses on tests of fluid intelligence than those taking the placebo,” Barbey said.
Zwilling discussed the gains in power this way: “Power is a measure of physical fitness that is based on several factors, such as how fast a participant can pull a heavy sled over a set distance, how far they can toss a weighted ball, and how many pushups, pull-ups or sit-ups they can perform in a set time period.”
“But we also wanted to know whether taking the supplement conferred an advantage above and beyond the effect of exercise,” Zwilling said. “We saw that it did, for example in relationship to resting heart rate, which went down more in those who took the supplement than in those who didn’t.”
Not surprisingly, the airmen saw a decrease in body fat percentage and an increase in VO2 max, or the measure of oxygen-uptake efficiency. They also improved their performance with regard to several cognitive function measures. An important and notable improvement was the increase in the accuracy of responses to problems designed to measure fluid intelligence.
Those participants who received the nutrient-loaded beverage also improved their ability to retain information, along with improvements in the processing of data and information. Fluid intelligence tests revealed an improvement in reaction time in relation to their peers who did not receive the nutrient drink.
“Our work motivates the design of novel multi-modal interventions that incorporate both aerobic fitness training and nutritional supplementation, and illustrates that their benefits extend beyond improvements in physical fitness to enhance multiple measures of cognitive function,” Barbey said.
Based on these findings, I think it’s safe to say that quality nutrition, combined with an effective exercise program, will not only make you stronger, leaner and healthier. Cleaning up your diet and exercise habits is likely to actually make you smarter! That’s a perk we can all appreciate.
Keep the faith and keep after it!
Journal Reference – Christopher E. Zwilling, Adam Strang, Evan Anderson, Jennifer Jurcsisn, Erica Johnson, Tapas Das, Matthew J. Kuchan, Aron K. Barbey. Enhanced physical and cognitive performance in active duty Airmen: evidence from a randomized multimodal physical fitness and nutritional intervention. Scientific Reports, 2020; 10 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-74140-7