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Physical and Cognitive Benefits of Exercise and Good Nutrition

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign publish findings from a study demonstrating the positive effects of exercise and good nutrition on physical and cognitive functions in the human body.

The study recruited 148 active-duty Air Force airmen for a period of 12 weeks which required the participation of an exercise regimen and half of the group receiving a twice-daily nutrient drink that included protein; omega-3 fatty acid, DHA; lutein; phospholipids; vitamin D; various vitamin Bs and other micronutrients; together with a muscle-promoting compound known as HMB. Results of the study was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Participants were randomly assigned to the two groups. The exercise regimen combined strength training and high-intensity interval aerobic fitness challenges. One group received the nutritional beverage and the other consumed a placebo beverage that lacked the added nutrients. Neither the researchers nor the participants knew who received the nutrient-enriched beverage or placebo.

“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 Professor Aron Barbey, from 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,” Professor Barbey said.

Christopher Zwilling shared, “Physical power increased in both groups as a result of the physical training. 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 push-ups, pull-ups or sit-ups they can perform in a set time period.”

Overall, the physical training reduced body fat percentage and increased their oxygen-uptake efficiency. Based on several measures of cognitive function, the study participants also demonstrated improved performance. Once of the most notable was the increase in accuracy of responses to problems designed to measure fluid intelligence.

“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.”

Those who received the nutritional beverage were found to have better reaction time compared to the participants who only received the placebo drink.

“Our work motivates the design of novel multimodal 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,” Professor Barbey said.

The team from University of Illinois conducted the intervention with study co-author Adam Strang, a scientist in the Applied Neuroscience Branch of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, along with his colleagues in the Air Force Research Laboratory. The University of Illinois team also worked with research fellow and study co-author Tapas Das and his colleagues at Abbott Nutrition, who led the design of the nutritional beverage, which is a mixture of nutrients targeting both muscle and brain. The specially designed beverage provided ingredients that previous studies have shown are associated with improved physical cognitive function. [APBN]