Moderate Intensity Exercise May Improve Cognition Following a Night of Poor Sleep


Moderate cycling improved cognitive function in patients who got partial or no sleep.

Moderate intensity exercise may improve cognitive performance (CP) after a poor night of sleep, according to research published in Physiology and Behaviour. Although exercise could be used as a positive intervention for individuals who do not get adequate sleep, more research needs to be done.

“We know from existing research that exercise improves or maintains our cognitive performance, even when oxygen levels are reduced. But this is the first study to suggest it also improves CP after both full and partial sleep deprivation, and when combined with hypoxia,” said Joe Costello, PhD, from the School of Sport, Health & Exercise Science (SHES) at the University of Portsmouth, in a press release.

Adults should get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night, according to clinical recommendations, although estimates suggest that 40% of all adults are not getting enough sleep. Short term sleep deprivation might be associated with worse cognitive performance (including attention span, judgement, and emotional state), but in the long term, too little sleep might increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, neurodegenerative disorders, and depression.

Exhausted woman suffering from insomnia

Image credit: stokkete |

Investigators from the University of Portsmouth, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Chichester; University of Surrey; Teesside University; The University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo, Japan; and Sao Paulo State University in Brazil, conducted a study to evaluate sleep deprivation on cognitive performance and hypoxia.

During experiment 1 of the study, healthy participants got 5 hours of sleep a night for 3 days and were asked to perform 7 cognitive tests at rest, upon waking. They performed the same tests again during a moderate intensity 20-minute cycling session. Participants rated sleepiness and mood prior to each test.

The results showed that moderate-intensity exercise improved CP across all 7 tests; however, investigators could not evaluate whether 3 nights of sleep impacted the participants’ executive function.

“If the exercise was any longer or harder it may have amplified the negative results and became a stressor itself,” said Costello in the press release.

During experiment 2, participants went 1 night with no sleep and took the tests. Then participants went into a hypoxic environment with low oxygen and took the test while exercising. Thomas Williams, study co-author and investigator with the Extreme Environments Research Group at University of Portsmouth, said this experiment was important because sleep deprivation is often associated with stressors. The results of this experiment showed that exercise improved CP even when performed in lower-oxygen environments.

“One potential hypothesis for why exercise improves CP is related to the increase in cerebral blood flow and oxygenation,” Thomas said in the press release.

Exercise might also change the number of brain-regulating hormones in circulation, according to study authors.

The study cohort only included young and healthy adults, which could be considered a study limitation. More studies should be conducted to understand the neurobiology underlying CP and evaluate exercise on CP in a more diverse cohort, whose findings could have implications for many people who suffer from poor sleep, spend time in low oxygen environments, or perform shift work.

“The findings significantly add to what we know about the relationship between exercise and these stressors, and helps to reinforce the message that movement is medicine for the body and the brain,” Costello said in the press release.


20 minutes of exercise can boost your brain after a bad night’s sleep. University of Portsmouth. November 23, 2023.Accessed December 14, 2023.

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