Adolescents on the Move: Exercise and Executive Functioning

Natasha Chaku, Fordham University


Growing research suggests that aerobic exercise may promote “cold” executive functioning (EF; cognitive control skills involved in goal-directed behavior); however, no research has explored how exercise affects “hot” EF (i.e., emotional or affective processing skills). Further, associations among hormone concentrations, exercise, and EF are poorly understood among marginalized youth and little is known about how demographic and health characteristics affect the relationship between exercise and EF. The current study examines how exercise affects hot and cold EF skills and explores how hormone concentrations, health, and demographic characteristics may moderate that relationship. The current study consists of 103 low-income, youth (51% male; Mage = 12.63; 92% youth of color), randomly assigned to an exergame condition (i.e., an exercise-based video game) or control condition (i.e., sedentary video game). All youth completed a series of questionnaires measuring demographic information (e.g., self-reported fitness, pubertal status), a saliva sample, and several computerized tasks measuring hot EF (i.e., affective decision-making, emotion regulation) and cold EF (i.e., inhibitory control) at baseline. After playing the video game, youth completed a second saliva sample and a second round of EF testing. There were no differences between conditions on baseline EF or any sociodemographic characteristics. Two by two Analyses of Covariance (ANCOVAs) were used to examine differences in EF by condition. Youth in the exergame condition had better inhibitory control, but worse emotion regulation and affective decision-making skills post-exercise compared to the control condition. Additionally, testosterone concentrations amplified the relationship between physical activity and EF skills: youth in the exergame condition with higher initial levels of testosterone had even better inhibitory control and even worse affective decision-making skills post exercise. The findings from this study suggest that exercise is associated with improvements in cold EF skills and decreases in hot EF skills. Further, results from this analysis also yielded insight into one of the biological mechanisms contributing to individual differences in adolescent behavior: testosterone appeared to exacerbate the association between exercise and EF. This study provides preliminary evidence that exercise may capitalize on windows of opportunity in development to improve EF skills.

Subject Area

Developmental psychology

Recommended Citation

Chaku, Natasha, "Adolescents on the Move: Exercise and Executive Functioning" (2020). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI27957690.