Selective attention – the ability to focus on what’s important and manage distraction – can be elusive. But findings from a new study suggest that exercise enhances selective attention. People who engaged in just a single exercise session before completing a task exhibited better focus and less distraction.
The study involved 24 healthy adults who participated in two protocols (20 minutes of exercise or 30 minutes of seated rest) on separate occasions. Participants completed a task before and after each protocol that tested their attention to attended versus unattended stimuli. Attended stimuli are things a person needs to focus on; unattended stimuli are those a person should ignore, such as background noise. Researchers measured the participants' brain activity during the task completion.
They found that participants focused better on the task after a single exercise session than after sitting. However, neither of the protocols influenced the participants' performance on the task. Processing of attended stimuli increased after exercise, while processing of unattended stimuli decreased, suggesting that exercise allocated neural resources to support attention.
One mechanism that drives the increased focus after exercise may be related to norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter produced in the locus coeruleus. Exercise increases norepinephrine release, which in turn promotes attention and vigilance.
This was a small study; nevertheless, it supports other evidence suggesting that exercise has potent effects on the brain. Learn more about the effects of exercise in our overview article.