Which Is Better For The Brain – Long Duration Or Short High Intensity Exercise?

group push ups

Catherine O’Brien

High intensity interval training (HIIT) is a form of exercise that utilizes “repeated bouts of short-to-moderate duration exercise at an intensity of 85-90% of peak oxygen uptake or 90-95% of peak heart rate (HR)” (Kao et al., 2017, p. 1336).  This form of exercise has gained popularity as of late due to its time efficiency.

Research has demonstrated that moderate and vigorous exercise help reduce reaction time on an interference tasks measuring inhibitory control. Furthermore, the literature suggests that high intensity interval training had greater effects on cognitive performance in the post exercise inhibitory control measures compared to continuous aerobic exercise – see 25 Minutes Of Exercise Can Improve Knowledge.  Inhibitory control refers to the ability to regulate prepotent behavioral and cognitive responses and manage interference from irrelevant stimuli while maintaining attention on relevant stimuli (Kao et al., 2017, p.1335).

Related Article: How HIIT Changes Our Body

The Study

Kao et al (2017) were interested in comparing the effects of continuous aerobic exercise and high intensity interval training on measures of inhibitory control.  Participants were 65 undergraduate students who attended 4 sessions in order to complete the study. In the first session, they completed questionnaires pertaining to demographic information, health, physical activity readiness etc. They completed tests of cardiopulmonary fitness (VO2Max) and were familiarized with the Eriksen Flanker cognitive task. The Eriksen Flanker task measures inhibitory control by assessing response time and accuracy in identifying a target stimulus.

The following three sessions included the exercise manipulations (randomized in order). The three conditions were continuous aerobic exercise (CAE), high intensity interval training (HIIT) and a seated control.

Related Article: Headaches & VO2 Max


  1. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) – running for 1.5 minutes at 90% max HR with a 1-minute walking period in between.
  2. Continuous Aerobic Exercise (CAE) -20 minutes of walking on a treadmill
  3. Seated Control

Following each of the interventions, participants were set up with EEG monitoring and proceeded to complete the Eriksen Flanker Task.


Results showed that reaction time was improved following both the CAU and HIIT conditions. Response accuracy improved selectively for incongruent trials and decreased response accuracy interference following HIIT compared to rest and CAE. In this way, the researchers posit that while both CAE and HIIT support improved response time, “HIIT may exert additional influences on performance during tasks requiring the up-regulation of inhibitory control” (p. 1341).


So what does this mean for you? This study demonstrates that short, high intensity training may be equally if not more effective at improving cognitive function related to inhibitory control. So even if your time is limited, taking advantage of HIIT workouts can be just as beneficial to your brain as a longer workout.

Finding your Max Heart Rate

An easy way to determine your peak heart rate is to use the following formula:

(220) – (your age) = Max HR -> Max HR(.90) = 90% max HR

So, for example, if you are 30 years old, your max HR would be around 190, and 90% of your max HR would be 171.

Related Article: Get In The Zone: Heart Rate Monitoring

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Kai, S-C., Westfall, D.R., Soneson, J., Gurd, B., Hillman, C.H. (2016) Comparison of the acute effects of high-intensity interval training and continuous aerobic walking on inhibitory control. Psychophysiology, 54:1335-1345.

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