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Physical activity mitigates cognitive deficits caused by lack of sleep

by Olga Sokolova

A recent study conducted by the University of Portsmouth has uncovered significant insights into the relationship between exercise, sleep deprivation, and cognitive performance (CP). The study, involving 24 participants across two experiments, focused on the impact of partial and total sleep deprivation, as well as hypoxia (low oxygen levels), on cognitive abilities.

Physical activity mitigates cognitive deficits caused by lack of sleep

Remarkably, it was discovered that a mere 20-minute cycling session could notably enhance CP, irrespective of the individual’s sleep status or oxygen levels. This groundbreaking research, led by Dr. Joe Costello of the University’s School of Sport, Health & Exercise Science (SHES), has made a substantial contribution to the understanding of how physical activity can offset the cognitive deficits brought on by common stressors.

The findings highlight the effectiveness of moderate-intensity exercise in improving cognitive performance even under conditions of full or partial sleep deprivation and hypoxia. The first phase of the study involved participants restricted to five hours of sleep per night. Results showed an inconsistent CP at rest, but a noticeable improvement post-exercise. The second phase presented an even more challenging scenario: participants underwent a night without sleep and were then placed in a hypoxic environment.

Despite these conditions, their cognitive performance improved after exercising, underscoring the resilience of the human brain when aided by physical activity. The study’s co-lead author, Dr. Thomas Williams, emphasized the relevance of these findings in real-world scenarios where sleep deprivation often coincides with other stressors. The research suggests that even in environments with reduced oxygen levels, such as high altitudes, exercise can enhance cognitive performance.

This discovery holds significant implications for various groups, including athletes, climbers, skiers, parents of young children, and shift workers. While the study offers promising insights, it also acknowledges its limitations, primarily the inclusion of only healthy, young participants. Further research with a more diverse participant pool is planned to deepen the understanding of the relationship between CP and stressors. The study, a collaborative effort involving multiple universities, represents a significant step forward in cognitive science and health research.

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