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Relationships among Executive Function, Cognitive Load, and Weight-related Behaviors in University Students

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Objectives: College students have high risk of anxiety and weight gain. Understanding how executive function traits, especially with trait anxiety, associates with weight-related behaviors could indicate strategies for improving obesity prevention programs. In this study, we examined links between weight-related behaviors of undergraduate students and executive function traits with and without high cognitive loads in the form of trait anxiety. Methods: Participants (N = 406) completed an online survey assessing health, weight-related behaviors, executive function traits (cognitive self-control, concentration, and flexibility), and cognitive load (trait anxiety). Results: K-means cluster analysis of executive function trait scales yielded 3 homogenous groups distinctly different from each other: Cluster 1 had the lowest cognitive self-control and flexibility and moderate concentration traits, Cluster 2 had the lowest concentration and moderate self-control and flexibility traits, and Cluster 3 had the highest executive function traits. Clusters did not differ on BMI or physical health. Cluster 3 had better mental health, physical activity, sleep quality, and eating behaviors. Across clusters, those with high cognitive loads, as indicated by trait anxiety, had poorer mental health than those with low loads. High cognitive load in Clusters 2 and 3 adversely affected eating behaviors requiring cognitive concentration and self-control. Conclusions: Future research should explore the feasibility of delivering executive control improvement activities and health education simultaneously.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Carol Byrd-Bredbenner, Distinguished Professor, Rutgers University, Department of Nutritional Sciences, New Brunswick, NJ 2: Research Associate, Rutgers University, Department of Nutritional Sciences, New Brunswick, NJ;, Email: [email protected]

Publication date: September 1, 2020

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  • The American Journal of Health Behavior seeks to improve the quality of life through multidisciplinary health efforts in fostering a better understanding of the multidimensional nature of both individuals and social systems as they relate to health behaviors.

    The Journal aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the impact of personal attributes, personality characteristics, behavior patterns, social structure, and processes on health maintenance, health restoration, and health improvement; to disseminate knowledge of holistic, multidisciplinary approaches to designing and implementing effective health programs; and to showcase health behavior analysis skills that have been proven to affect health improvement and recovery.

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