A new study carried out at Western’s Exercise and Health Psychology Laboratory in Canada has shown that exercise can improve attention and alertness even more so than caffeine. Published in Nature, the team compared exercise and caffeine head-to-head in the first investigation of its kind, showing that both can be used to improve certain aspects of cognition at varying levels.

Caffeine has been shown without a doubt to increase alertness, but it’s effect on memory is more mixed. Exercise has also been known to play a role in increasing working memory, but no past studies have identified which is better. Working memory is part of short-term memory which is concerned with immediate conscious perceptual and linguistic processing. This includes remembering items on a shopping list or mental arithmetic.

The investigation was led by Western Exercise and Health Psychology Laboratory director Harry Prapavessis together with graduate student Anisa Morava and former student Matthew Fagan.

To test the effects of exercise and caffeine on memory, a brisk, 20-minute walk on the treadmill was compared to one dose of caffeine – equivalent to approximately one cup of coffee. It was found that exercise resulted in better memory than caffeine, and the results were consistent across non-caffeine consumers and caffeine consumers a-like.

“Healthy individuals drinking two cups of coffee a day are generally OK in the sense that it’s not going to negatively affect most of your physiological functions. However, for special populations, caffeine consumption can be problematic and should be limited or reduced,” Morava explained.

Special populations include anxiety sufferers, pregnant women, and those who experience muscle tremors. High caffeine consumers, such as those who drink more than four cups of coffee a day, are more at-risk of the negative effects of caffeine such as headaches, irritability, fast heartbeat and even muscle tremors.

Acknowledging the way exercise can mimic the cognitive effects of caffeine can lead those who are trying to reduce their caffeine consumption to look at more actives route, such as physical activity which may assist with withdrawal symptoms.