Photo Jay Caboz.
Coffee beans. Photo Jay Caboz.

  • A quick session of aerobic exercise can improve your focus as much as a cup of coffee, according to a new study.
  • Researchers found that 20 minutes of brisk walking on a treadmill improved participants' working memory as much as a dose of caffeine.
  • This was true for both coffee drinkers and non-drinkers alike, suggesting exercise could benefit people regardless of whether they typically rely on caffeine to keep them alert.
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Many people can't imagine starting their day without a morning cup of coffee. But new research suggests a bit of morning exercise could be a good, and even a better, alternative, particularly for people who want to avoid a caffeine crash later in the day.

Around 20 minutes of brisk walking on a treadmill could boost your brain's focus and alertness as much as your daily brew, according to a study published in December 2019 in Nature Scientific Reports.

Researchers from Western University and the University of British Columbia looked at 59 participants, aged 18 to 40, half of whom consumed caffeine regularly. They tested participants' ability to quickly process and recall information, under three different conditions: after 20 minutes of light jogging or brisk walking on the treadmill; after consuming about as much caffeine, in powdered form, as in an average cup of coffee; and then with neither of these interventions, as a baseline.

They found that both exercise and caffeine improved participants' accuracy on the test, whether they usually consumed caffeine or not - test-takers were about 20% more accurate on their recalls after exercise or caffeine compared to their baseline scores.

People who drink coffee regularly were actually more efficient after a walk than a brew

Somewhat surprisingly, regular coffee drinkers were more efficient after exercise than after a coffee.

The researchers said it made sense. People who use caffeine regularly tend to build up a tolerance to its effects. So, they were likely unfazed by the study's meager dose of coffee - about 80 milligrams of caffeine, about as much as one cup of coffee, which is less than many people consume in a single day.

Conversely, people who didn't regularly consume caffeine had slightly more of a boost after using caffeine, suggesting they're more sensitive to the effects.

Interestingly, researchers found that neither exercise nor caffeine was more effective at improving participants' reaction time in the tests, but both helped to make participants more efficient, sharp, and accurate.

Exercise could also ease symptoms of caffeine withdrawal, the study found

Exercise could also help stave off the mental fogginess and other symptoms of a caffeine crash, researchers found.

For anyone experiencing caffeine withdrawal, 20 minutes of aerobic exercise was found to reduce symptoms like fatigue, sluggishness, and lack of focus - so much so that researchers found it was as effective as giving them caffeine.

Previous research shows that caffeine can be addictive, and withdrawal symptoms can get worse the more you drink on a regular basis.

Although the findings are promising evidence that exercise can be just as effective as coffee in boosting alertness, more research needs to be done to figure out what amount and intensity of exercise might affect the brain.

Read more:

We tracked over 1,000 people's gym habits throughout 2019, and found they didn't ditch their resolutions by February

A 21-year-old man died after drinking a highly-caffeinated protein shake. Similarly powerful caffeine supplements are found in workout and weight-loss shakes, pills, and powders.

A high-carb, high-sugar diet may be damaging your sleep

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