Short Bursts of Moderate Exercise Boost Self Control

A meta analysis of published research suggests that short bursts of moderate to intense exercise may in fact improve self-control.


The researchers suspect that improvements in higher brain function may be the result of increased blood and oxygen flow to the brain. The review was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine

A number of previous studies have assessed the impact of both short bursts and regular exercise on higher brain functions such as memory, concentration and decision making. While regular exercise did not appear to have a significant effect, the researchers cautioned that the results were too inconsistent to draw solid conclusions.

Conversely short bursts of exercise did show a significant impact on higher brain function across a variety of age groups.

Interestingly 12 of the 19 studies reviewed assessed self-control and the analysis clearly demonstrated a small to moderate positive effect.

The findings are important with respect to academic success (and more general aspects of daily life) in children and teenagers. Study authours wrote:

"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,"

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

Researchers suspect that short bursts of moderate to intense physical activity may boost cerebral blood flow to areas of the brain responsible for higher functions, and go on to suggest that exercise may be useful as part of a holistic treatment regime for conditions affecting higher brain function such as ADHD and autism.

A previous study published in the Journal of Paediatrics supports this theory.  Researchers from Michigan State University found that just 20 minutes of physical activity helped children with ADHD perform better at school. Again this was believed to be through boosting ‘inhibitory control’.

While not directly related a 2012 Donder Institute meta-analysis of research also found positive support for the theory that exercise interventions have a positive impact on both children and adults with Autistic Spectrum Disorders in terms of  motor performance and social skills.


  1. Verburgh, M. Konigs, E. J. A. Scherder, J. Oosterlaan.Physical exercise and executive functions in preadolescent children, adolescents and young adults: a meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2013; DOI: 10.1136/bjsports-2012-091441
  2. Matthew B. Pontifex et al.Exercise Improves Behavioral, Neurocognitive, and Scholastic Performance in Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Journal of Paediatrics Published online 19 October 2012.
  3. Michelle Sowa, Ruud Meulenbroek, Effects of physical exercise on Autism Spectrum Disorders: A meta-analysis. Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands



By Ian Duncan

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