Fact Check #3: Do Coffee and Exercise Have the Same Effect on the Brain?

According to an article entitled “Exercise has the same effect on the brain as coffee” from Medical News Today, there has recently been a study that has compared the effects of coffee and twenty minutes of exercise on one’s working memory. It claimed “Exercise may be just as good, if not better, than coffee for jumpstarting the brain” (Via Medical News Today).

The headline in and of itself caught my attention to begin with. The wording, however, of the claim made by this article at the end of the first paragraph was what prompted me to use it as a source for this fact check.

While the unnamed author stated that the study compared the effects of both caffeine and exercise on the brain’s working memory, they cited the study’s findings as concluding “that acute exercise can be as good for the mind as it is for the body” (Via Medical News Today). In other words, the article commented on exercise’s benefits for the brain, but did not cite what these benefits were in comparison to the benefits of coffee, or even caffeine in general. I also found that the fact that the article only commented on these findings for one brief paragraph before diving into the drawbacks of frequent coffee consumption, which was seemingly unrelated to what was advertised in the headline as being the article’s main point.

Doing a DuckDuckGo search of “”exercise” “coffee” site:snopes.com site:politifact.com site:factcheck.org” did not yield any results, so I began the first step of my research with the Medical News Today Wikipedia page in order to see if I could see how credible of a source I was dealing with. According to Wikipedia, this site is an entirely online publication owned by Healthline Media. Wikipedia confirmed that it was also the United States’ third most visited health related website as of late 2019.

I also read laterally on this source through using a Google search of “medicalnewstoday.com -site:medicalnewstoday.com”. This yielded a result from Media Bias / Fact Check, which rated it as a mostly reliable source, but also criticized its coverage of alternative medicine, which is not widely accepted as scientifically factual in the medical community. Aside from that criticism, it did state that they had never failed a fact check by their standards.

Once I felt as though I had decent background knowledge on the source, I went back to the Medical News Today article in order to look further into the provided study and original claim of coffee and exercise having the same effect on one’s working memory. When looking at the study in question (which was linked in the original article), I learned that it was reported by Scientific Reports in December of 2019 and that the process aimed to study the effects of caffeine and exercise on both working memory as well as caffeine withdrawal symptoms.

Something that I quickly noticed while looking at the study itself was the discrepancy between the article’s claim in its headline and the findings listed in the its abstract. While the original article claimed that exercise was “just as good, if not better” than caffeine in terms of boosting the brain’s working memory, the original study actually stated that “The effects of acute exercise in comparison to caffeine on cognition remain unknown” (Via Scientific Reports).

This means that, while the study did find that exercise has a positive effect on cognitive functions of the brain, it did not find that exercise had the same effect on the brain as coffee, as stated by the original article.

Despite the claims made by this article, I was led to believe that the results of the original study were either incomplete or inconclusive when looking at the study itself. There was no “results” or “conclusion” section, which is common in completed studies, and — while the study claimed to be researching the effects of exercise and coffee on working memory and caffeine withdrawal — the abstract stated that exercise’s effect on the brain in comparison to coffee is still unknown as well as that the effects of exercise on symptoms of caffeine withdrawal is still unknown.

While my lateral reading on Medical News Today originally led me to believe that it would be a reliable source of information, I would have to rate this article as being factually inaccurate. The abstract in the original study directly contradicts the claims made by the article in that exercise has the same effects on working memory as coffee does, and unless the reader were to look at the study themselves as I did for this fact check, they would be receiving false information from Medical News Today on what the actual conclusions were.

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