Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Integrated Article


Master of Science




Heath, Matthew


Executive function includes the core components of response inhibition, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. Interestingly, an accumulating evidence has reported that inhibitory control and working memory improve following a single bout of exercise. It is, however, largely unclear whether cognitive flexibility elicits a similar post-exercise benefit. Accordingly, Chapter Two of my thesis examined whether 20-min of aerobic exercise provides an immediate post-exercise ‘boost’ to cognitive flexibility. Chapter Three examined for how long a putative post-exercise benefit persists. Cognitive flexibility was examined via an AABB task-switching paradigm wherein participants alternated between a well-practiced and a novel oculomotor task pre- and post-exercise. Chapter Two showed an immediate post-exercise benefit to cognitive flexibility and Chapter Three demonstrated that the benefit persists for up to 47-min post exercise. As such, my thesis provides convergent evidence that a single bout of exercise benefits each core component of executive function.

Summary for Lay Audience

An accumulating literature indicates an overall positive effect of acute exercise on executive function. Executive function is essential to activities of daily living and includes the core components of inhibitory control, working memory and cognitive flexibility. Notably, the majority of research demonstrating that exercise provides a ‘boost’ to executive function has focused on inhibitory control and working memory tasks. It is therefore largely unclear whether exercise similarly benefits cognitive flexibility. To address this issue, I used a ‘task-switching’ paradigm wherein participants alternated – or ‘switched’ – between different oculomotor (i.e., eye movement) tasks after every second trial prior to and after a 20-min single bout of aerobic exercise. In my first experiment, a single bout of aerobic exercise provided an immediate post-exercise improvement to cognitive flexibility. In a subsequent experiment, I showed that the benefit persisted for up to 47-min post-exercise. Accordingly, my results provide direct evidence that exercise improves cognitive flexibility and lends to convergent support for the view that an exercise benefit extends to each core component of executive function.