Living a healthier lifestyle, such as exercising regularly and avoiding junk food may increase your ability to exert self-control, meet goals, resist temptation and solve problems, a new study has found. It should be obvious that those with greater self-control live a healthier lifestyle, researchers said. However, the new study suggests that living a healthier lifestyle could also increase executive function, which is the ability to exert self-control. A feedback loop exists where greater executive function (EF) enables people to lead a healthier lifestyle, which in turn, improves their executive function, researchers said.
“It seems that physical activity and EF are synergistic – they improve one another,” according to the study. Researchers at the University of Aberdeen, the University of Stirling in the UK and the University College Dublin in Ireland, used data collected from 4,555 adults. They analysed the relationship between physical activity and executive function, adjusting for other variables such as age, gender, education, wealth and illness and found evidence that the relationship between the two is bidirectional. It is the first study of its kind to look at whether the effects are bidirectional and has expanded the understanding of such relationships.
Specifically, individuals with poor executive function showed subsequent decreases in their rates of participation in physical activity and older adults who engaged in sports and other physical activities tended to retain high levels of executive function over time. Researchers noted that while the study focused on physical activity and its relationship to executive function, it is likely a positive feedback loop also exists between executive function and eating nutritious foods.
Similarly, it is likely that negative feedback loops also exist, in that unhealthy behaviors such as smoking or drinking too much alcohol will be both a result of and a predictor of declining executive function. This has implications for ageing, researchers said. The older one gets, the more likely executive function is to decline, the study notes. Older people may become more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors like remaining sedentary and less likely to maintain healthy but effortful behaviors like taking prescribed medication regularly. Conversely, the longer one can maintain high executive function, the longer and more easily that person can stave off behavior that will be detrimental to their health.
“People who make a change to their health behavior, like participating in physical activity, eating less processed food, or consuming more fruits and vegetables, can see an improvement in their brain function over time and increase their chances of remaining healthy as they age,” said Julia Allan from University of Aberdeen. The research was published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.
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