Case study

Using caffeine to encourage adults to exercise

Our research has discovered that caffeine can make exercise feel easier and more enjoyable for people. Exercise Science academic Dr Joel Chidley's findings could offer a surprising and controversial new strategy for increasing physical activity levels in adults.

An unconventional idea

The mental and physical health rewards for regular exercise are universally acknowledged but, despite this, few of us achieve the recommended average of 30 minutes each day. Being physically inactive is a huge risk factor for various diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

Like many researchers, Dr Chidley, Lecturer in Sport Outdoor and Exercise within our College of Life and Natural Sciences, wants to help tackle this growing social issue — but in a very unconventional way. He explains: “It is common for patients to choose between drugs and exercise in their treatment plan but I believe there is a third option which combines both. Why not take one drug to help you exercise so that you don’t need to take the others?”

Testing the effects of caffeine

In collaboration with the universities of Kent and Bologna, Dr Chidley conducted a series of experiments investigating the effects of caffeine on people’s feelings during exercise. Caffeine is a psychoactive drug but one that’s widely available, safe and inexpensive.

Dr Chidley summarises the findings: “We demonstrated that caffeine has the ability to reduce the perception of effort, discomfort and pain, as well as increasing exercise enjoyment. Importantly, taking caffeine didn’t cancel out the physical health benefits of exercise.”

This was also the first study to show that caffeine could change exercise behaviour, meaning that participants were more likely to want to exercise after receiving caffeine than after receiving a placebo.

Courting controversy

This research raises difficult questions for exercise professionals. “Exercise has traditionally been seen as the ‘natural’ treatment,” explains Dr Chidley, “and drugs have been seen as the ‘dirty’ option which bring a host of side-effects. It’s my view that exercise shouldn’t need to be a ‘pure’ endeavour. Why not simply focus on getting more people more active?”

Dr Joel Chidley mountain biking in Canada
Lecturer in Sport Outdoor and Exercise Science

As a lecturer and level 6 lead in Sport Outdoor and Exercise Science, Dr Chidley leads modules on environmental exercise physiology and research methods. He is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and has a PhD in exercise psychophysiology.

Looking for long-term impacts

The next stage of this research is to determine whether the positive psychological state induced by caffeine during exercise is enough to improve a person’s engagement in exercise long term. If it is, this could have a dramatic impact on health guidelines, clinical practice and on attitudes to using caffeine and other drugs in exercise.

We’re not there yet, as Dr Chidley concedes: “Truly embracing this approach and pursuing the development of drugs that are more powerful and more targeted than caffeine will require a major shift in perspective for many professionals.”

a mother holds a happy child above her head

Human Sciences Research Centre

Our Human Sciences Research Centre conducts theoretical and applied research into the prevention and treatment of diseases and into improvements to the quality of life for people of all ages.

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