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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Cognition and motion : the relationship between cognitive function, physical activity, and gait dynamics in young adults Ho, Simon


Physical activity (PA) levels have been declining worldwide, despite the physical health benefits of increased PA having been known and messaged for decades. One possible reason for this is that physical health improvements are too long term, and it may be more effective to promote short-term benefits instead. PA has been shown to improve cognitive function over relatively short timescales and promoting these cognitive benefits may be a better approach for increasing PA levels in the population. What remains unclear is how certain moderators can affect the PA-cognition relationship, and how we can better measure PA in real-world environments. Over three studies, my dissertation aims to examine the effect of moderators like PA intensity and PA time window, as well as develop a novel methodology for measuring low-intensity physical activities, like walking, in outdoor settings. In the first study, I found that PA measured over the week prior to cognitive testing is not predictive of cognitive function, and that this does not depend on PA intensity. In the second study, I found that PA measured over the day prior to testing is associated with improved cognitive performance. In the third study, I examined the bidirectional nature of this relationship, and found that changes in cognition can have a marked impact on outdoor walking behaviour, and that these changes in gait dynamics can be detected using a smartphone-based measurement technique. Overall, my research shows that while PA does appear to be associated with cognitive function, the effects are quite small and dependent on factors like when the PA is measured relative to cognitive testing. In terms of PA promotion, more research needs to be conducted on the limits of this relationship before we can draw any definitive conclusions about the cognitive benefits of PA, as small statistically significant effects don’t necessarily translate to useful practical benefits in the real world.

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