Is the effect of aerobic exercise on cognition a placebo effect?

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Abstract

A number of studies and meta-analyses conclude that aerobic fitness (walking) interventions improve cognition. Such interventions typically compare improvements from these interventions to an active control group in which participants engage in non-aerobic activities (typically stretching and toning) for an equivalent amount of time. However, in the absence of a double-blind design, the presence of an active control group does not necessarily control for placebo effects; participants might expect different amounts of improvement for the treatment and control interventions [1]. We conducted a large survey to explore whether people expect greater cognitive benefits from an aerobic exercise intervention compared to a control intervention. If participants expect greater improvement following aerobic exercise, then the benefits of such interventions might be due in part to a placebo effect. In general, expectations did not differ between aerobic and non-aerobic interventions. If anything, some of the results suggest the opposite (e.g., respondents expected the control, non-aerobic intervention to yield bigger memory gains). These results provide the first evidence that cognitive improvements following aerobic fitness training are not due to differential expectations.

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APA

Stothart, C. R., Simons, D. J., Boot, W. R., & Kramer, A. F. (2014). Is the effect of aerobic exercise on cognition a placebo effect? PLoS ONE, 9(10). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0109557

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