There is a direct link between physical fitness, cognitive performance and optimal nutrition, finds a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Abbott and the U.S. Air Force Research Lab.
The scientists revealed that getting the right nutrition not only fuels our bodies and improves fitness, but gives us an edge mentally, too.
The double-blind study examined the effectiveness of optimal nutrition and exercise to enhance fitness and cognitive performance among a group of active-duty men and women in the U.S. Air Force.
About the study
Researchers divided the 148 study participants into two groups for 12 weeks. Both groups performed the same training program, which included a balanced exercise program comprised of aerobic and resistance training performed five days per week.
In addition to the training program, one group was given a prototype nutritional drink (8 ounces twice daily), the other group received a placebo.
Researchers evaluated the effects of combined nutrition and exercise regimens on strength, endurance, flexibility, heart functions, lean muscle mass, processing speed, working memory, problem-solving and reaction time
Significant benefits of nutrition + exercise vs. exercise alone
The study showed that exercise, along with the addition of a high-protein nutrition drink containing lutein, omega-3 fatty acids, phospholipids, vitamin D and beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate (HMB), led to statistically significant changes to the following compared to exercise alone.
- Working memory improved by 11% (e.g., information processing and problem-solving); working memory predicts multitasking and is often impaired under stress.
- Reaction time improved by 6% meaning participants became faster and more accurate
- Muscle mass increased by more than two pounds
- Resting heart rate reduced by 8%, a sign of increased cardiovascular fitness. Resting heart rate improved from 71 beats per minute to 65 beats per minute
The physical and mental health benefits of exercise are well known, but this study demonstrates how optimal nutrition can help boost brain function as well.
Fueling body and brain
These results confirm that by combining the right nutrition and exercise, people who are facing high-pressure situations can stay sharp physically and mentally when they need it most.
The liquid nutritional drink used in the study contained DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, lutein, a phytochemical, as well as phospholipids and micronutrients to support mental performance. The nutrition formulation also included protein, vitamin D, and HMB to support muscle health.
Tips for everyday people
Like U.S. Air Force personnel, healthy adults can prime their bodies and brains to work more efficiently and juggle multiple priorities:
- Muscle gains: After a workout, make sure your muscles reap the benefits by consuming foods rich in protein to help build muscle, like lean meat, dairy, salmon, tuna, milk, eggs, tofu and lentils.
- Mind your meals: Support memory and multitasking abilities by getting enough DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid in your diet. Fatty fish like salmon, trout and sardines are excellent sources
- Focus foods: Support information processing and problem-solving by opting for more lutein at meals. Lutein can be found in egg yolks, dark leafy greens like kale and spinach, and brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, including bell peppers, carrots, corn, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, avocados, oranges and melons.
Source: Scientific Reports, October 19, 2020.
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