Few studies have examined the acute exercise-induced changes in cognitive performance in different thermal environments and the time course effects.
Investigate the time-dependent effects of acute exercise on university students’ processing speed, working memory and cognitive flexibility in temperate and cold environments.
Twenty male university students (age 23.5 ± 2.0 years) with moderate physical activity level participated in a repeated-measures within-subjects design. Processing speed, working memory and cognitive flexibility were assessed using CogState test battery at baseline (BASE), followed by a 45-min rest (REST), immediately after (EX) and 30 min after (POST-EX) 30-min moderate-intensity treadmill running in both temperate (TEMP; 25°C) and cold (COLD; 10°C) environments. Mean skin temperature (MST) and thermal sensation (TS) were also recorded. Two-way repeated measures ANOVA was performed to analyze each variable. Spearman’s rho was used to identify the correlations between MST, TS and cognitive performance.
Reaction time (RT) of processing speed and working memory decreased immediately after exercise in both conditions (processing speed: p = 0.003; working memory: p = 0.007). The facilitating effects on processing speed disappeared within 30 min after exercise in TEMP (p = 0.163) and COLD (p = 0.667), while improvements on working memory remained 30 min after exercise in TEMP (p = 0.047), but not in COLD (p = 0.663). Though RT of cognitive flexibility reduced in both conditions (p = 0.003), no significance was found between EX and REST (p = 0.135). Increased MST and TS were significantly associated with reductions in processing speed RT (MST: r = -0.341, p < 0.001; TS: r = -0.262, p = 0.001) and working memory RT (MST: r = -0.282, p < 0.001; TS: r = -0.2229, p = 0.005), and improvements in working memory accuracy (MST: r = 0.249, p = 0.002; TS: r = 0.255, p = 0.001).
The results demonstrate different time-dependent effects of acute exercise on cognition in TEMP and COLD. Our study reveals facilitating effects of exercise on university students’ processing speed and working memory in both environments. However, in contrast to TEMP, effects on working memory in COLD are transient.