Can Exercise Make You a Better Driver?

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roadwayEveryone knows that working out is good for you. And the older we get, the more important it is to take care of ourselves. The health benefits of exercise are well-documented and universally known — weight loss, physical well-being, improved vitality, etc.

But what if we told you that it could also make you a better driver?

That’s according to a study published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity called, “Exercise Can Improve Speed of Behavior in Older Drivers.” [1]

Studies have established an association between speed of behavior and on-road tests or crashes. Appropriate and timely decision-making, as well as how quickly we process visual information, is important when negotiating difficult or dangerous traffic situations.

A great deal of research has focused on elderly drivers’ crash-involvement patterns, and past studies show the negative effects of aging on several functions crucial to driving, including:

  • Slowing and increasing variability of motor performance
  • Slower reaction times, especially with more complex tasks or while performing concurrent tasks
  • Decreased visual-attention ability
  • Decreased visual information-processing efficiency

It has also been documented that physical activity can improve a person’s speed of behavior (i.e., reaction time to environmental stimuli and speed of execution) in both simple and choice reaction, information-processing speed, attention capacity in dual-task situations and visual-attention skills.

However, this study is one of the few that focuses on the possible link between physical training and driving-related abilities among older adults. A 2009 study reported that an exercise program developed to stress perceptive, cognitive and physical abilities was capable of improving speed of behavior among older drivers, but the researchers used a simulated scenario, whereas this study’s results were collected during on-the-road driving.

Researchers randomly assigned 26 drivers, aged 55-78 years old, to either an exercise group or a control group. Those assigned to the exercise group completed an eight-week program consisting of three supervised 60-minute sessions per week.

It is important to note that the physical tasks performed focused on getting participants to respond to challenging situations by producing the desirable motor responses. Rather than repetitive movements, cognitively challenging tasks were incorporated while undertaking physical activities such as walking, stepping, reaching, throwing and manipulating objects. The cognitive demands targeted reaction time, dual-task situations, peripheral vision, response inhibition, planning and decision-making, and working memory. For example, while walking, an auditory/visual sign is presented that requires a specific psychomotor response.

To assess the effect of the physical activity, participants completed a driving test before and following the eight-week program. The test mainly consisted of following a car driven by a researcher on a rural road with little traffic, maintaining a close but safe distance of about 30 meters at a speed of around 50 km/hr. Participants were instructed to detect stimuli as fast as possible while keeping their attention on the road. For example, participants were instructed to brake as quickly as possible whenever the leading car’s rear brake lights were activated.

At baseline, there were no statistical differences in the driving-related variables of the control group versus the exercise group. After completing the eight-week program, however, the exercise group showed significant improvements in response time.

The authors admit the study’s limitations, including the small sample size, and caution against generalizing the findings. But they conclude: “The current research showed that older drivers’ speed of behavior can be improved through exercise. Therefore, training interventions for older drivers should integrate exercise programs. Furthermore, the greatest functional benefits will be achieved if exercise programs for older adults incorporate activities that stimulate both perceptive and cognitive abilities.” [1]

So, for older adults, an exercise program with a cognitive focus may help you stay safer behind the wheel and remain on the road longer.

[1] Marmeleira, J.F.F., Soares de Melo, F.M., Tlemcani, M., & Godinho, M.A.B. Exercise Can Improve Speed of Behavior in Older Drivers. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity. 2011. 19, 48-61.

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