Can the Right Mix of Diet and Exercise Improve Brain Function?

Exercise helps, but add in specific nutrients, and the results are even better.

Posted Oct 28, 2020

Monlaw/Pixabay, used with permission
A Mediterranean-style diet supplies brain-boosting nutrients.
Source: Monlaw/Pixabay, used with permission

Strength training and high-intensity aerobic interval challenges improve both physical and cognitive health and performance, according to a recent study of 148 active-duty members of the U.S. Air Force. In this study, training consisted of total body resistance circuit training on Monday and Wednesday, a moderate cardio workout on Tuesday and Thursday, and a high-intensity cardio endurance workout on Fridays. Participants exercised for 45 minutes a day for five days of the week. The results of the 12-week study, performed by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, indicated that this intense exercise routine also increased cognitive abilities, such as more efficient information processing and improvements in episodic memory (memory of past experiences and events that occurred at specific times and places, such as a wedding celebration or a going-away party). The researchers noted that the exercise intervention improved a total of eight different measures of cognition, such as participants’ fluid intelligence, or the ability to solve new problems. They also pointed out that the combined effects of aerobic, power/strength, and flexibility training has greater cognitive benefits than aerobic exercise alone.

In addition to exercise, 70 participants were given a specially designed, twice-daily supplemental nutrition beverage, while the 78 remaining participants were given a placebo beverage. The placebo provided only calories, no nutrients. The supplemental beverage was made with specific nutrients and other ingredients that have been shown to enhance physical well-being and improve brain activity, including DHA (omega-3 fatty acid), folic acid, and vitamin B12. Other nutrients in the mix included lutein (a carotenoid found in leafy green vegetables and carrots), phospholipids (a fat compound found in milk, eggs, sunflower seeds, and soy that is known to lower cholesterol and help maintain heart health), and HMB, a supplement known to preserve muscle mass and enhance sports performance that is found in very small amounts in citrus, avocado and cauliflower, plus an assortment of other vitamins and minerals. Overall, the supplemental beverage mimicked the nutritional make-up of the Mediterranean diet.

As the study authors point out, certain nutritional elements of a traditional Mediterranean diet promote healthy blood vessels by reducing total and LDL (unhealthy) cholesterol levels in the bloodstream, regulating blood clotting and tissue inflammation, and controlling fluids, electrolytes and other substances that move through the blood. By regulating these actions, the risk of heart disease, abnormal blood fats, high blood pressure, and vascular complications is reduced. At the same time, there is a reduction in white matter lesions in the brain and improvements in white matter brain structure. These conditions enhance executive function, working memory, and other measures of brain function and cognitive performance.

At the end of the study, an assessment showed that while the exercise intervention improved eight individual measures of cognition 21 individual measures of physical fitness for all participants, those airmen who also received the nutritional beverage intervention experienced improvement in 11 measures of cognition, and 23 measures of physical fitness. Generally, the researchers saw more and better improvements in heart rate, lean muscle mass, fluid intelligence reaction time, working memory, and processing efficiency in the exercise training plus nutritional supplement group than in the training plus placebo group.

Since the conclusions of this study were based on the findings from a group, further studies will help the researchers understand the role of individual variability, such as how different individuals start with different cognitive abilities and different levels of physical fitness, and therefore may need more or fewer exercise sessions or different levels of supplemental nutrients. Meanwhile, what we all get out of this study for now is confirmation of what many already know, that routinely exercising and eating a well-balanced, nutritionally sound diet, such as a Mediterranean-style diet, is key to physical and mental fitness.


Christopher E. Zwilling, Adam Strang, Evan Anderson, Jennifer Jurcsisn, Erica Johnson, Tapas Das, Matthew J. Kuchan, Aron K. Barbey. Enhanced physical and cognitive performance in active duty Airmen: evidence from a randomized multimodal physical fitness and nutritional intervention. Scientific Reports, October 19, 2020; 10 (1)