A bidirectional relationship between executive function and health behavior: evidence, implications, and future directions

Julia L. Allan, David McMinn, Michael Daly

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

37 Citations (Scopus)
10 Downloads (Pure)


Physically active lifestyles and other health-enhancing behaviors play an important role in preserving executive function into old age. Conversely, emerging research suggests that executive functions facilitate participation in a broad range of healthy behaviors including physical activity and reduced fatty food, tobacco and alcohol consumption. They do this by supporting the volition, planning, performance monitoring, and inhibition necessary to enact intentions and override urges to engage in health damaging behavior. Here, we focus firstly on evidence suggesting that health-enhancing behaviors can induce improvements in executive function. We then switch our focus to findings linking executive function to the consistent performance of health-promoting behaviors and the avoidance of health risk behaviors. We suggest that executive function, health behavior, and disease processes are interdependent. In particular, we argue that a positive feedback loop may exist whereby health behavior-induced changes in executive function foster subsequent health-enhancing behaviors, which in turn help sustain efficient executive functions and good health. We conclude by outlining the implications of this reciprocal relationship for intervention strategies, the design of research studies, and the study of healthy ageing.
Original languageEnglish
Article number386
Pages (from-to)1-13
Number of pages13
JournalFrontiers in Neuroscience
Publication statusPublished - 23 Aug 2016



  • executive function
  • cognitive ability
  • health behaviour
  • physical activity
  • substance use
  • diet
  • health

Cite this