New study shows menstrual cycles have no effect on cognitive benefits of exercise

The majority of exercise neuroscience studies (64 per cent) have not included female participants due to the frequently held belief that hormonal fluctuations – linked to menstrual cycles – may lead to inconsistent results and preclude adequate recommendations for exercise prescription.

However, a new Western University study shows that exercise-related benefits to brain health and cognition are realized independently of a woman’s menstrual cycle.

The findings by Kennedy Dirk, Glen Belfry and Matthew Heath from Western’s Faculty of Health Sciences were recently published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

“In my research I found that hormonal variations in the menstrual cycle did not play a role in determining the cognitive benefit women receive from a single-bout of aerobic exercise,” says Dirk, who successfully completed Western’s Kinesiology Undergraduate Program this year. “The results of our study show that no matter which phase of the menstrual cycle a female participant is experiencing at the time should not be a limiting factor in determining their inclusion in exercise neuroscience research.”

Dirk, also a former member of the Western Mustangs women’s ice hockey team, is now Tobacco Reduction Zone Coordinator at Alberta Health Services.

For the study, normally menstruating women completed 20-minute, single bouts of aerobic exercise on a stationary bike at a moderate intensity during two distinct phases of their menstrual cycle (early-follicular and mid-luteal). Following the aerobic activity, participants were tasked with completing cognitive tests and the results showed that a post-exercise improvement in executive function – a component of cognition – was equivalent in both phases of the menstrual cycle.

“This research is in line with results from more general literature, which shows there is not sufficient evidence indicating that the different phases of the menstrual cycle influence cognitive processing,” says Heath, a professor in Western’s School of Kinesiology. “Moreover, our work extends to previous studies that demonstrate the different phases of the menstrual cycle do not influence exercise-related benefits to brain health.”

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