Obesity is a significant public health issue linked to increased risk for chronic disease, loss of mobility, and diminished cognitive functioning. The present study examined the association between physical activity (PA) and executive function (EF) in obese adults. The goal was to establish whether there is a predictive relationship between PA and EF and determine if a change in PA influences EF.


Subjects (N = 147) were community-dwelling men and women aged 21 -75 years old. EF was measured by the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function-Adult Version (BRIEF-A) and PA (kcal) was measured by the Paffenbarger Physical Activity Questionnaire (PPAQ). Crude and adjusted linear models examined this relationship at baseline and 6-month follow up. The adjusted models included significant variables from bivariate analyses. Chi-squared test and factorial logistic regression model were used to assess whether an improvement in PA influenced EF at follow up.


The sample was largely African American (67%) with a mean (SD) age of 49.51 ± 11.08. At baseline, we found a significant association between PA and EF, with kcal per week indicated as one of the main predictors of EF scores [(β = -0.942 [SE, 0.42]; P = .028)]. The association remained after adjusting for age, education and BMI. We observed PA improvement by EF group at 6 months (p=0.05) with 37.8% vs. 22.7% improved PA in the normal compared to the elevated EF groups.


Results from this study indicate that higher levels of self-reported PA are associated with better EF scores. Evaluation of this association at longer follow up periods and with more objective measures of PA energy expenditure is warranted to further elucidate the predictive relationship of PA on EF in obese adults. Comprehensive evaluation of the effects of PA on cognition are important to develop interventions that target the behavioral, physiological, and psychological factors which influence obesity risk and the effectiveness of obesity treatment.