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New research highlights the importance of nutrition and sleep for esports athletes’ cognitive perfor

by Eric W. Dolan | July 12, 2023 | original article from Cognitive Science



New research indicates that esports athletes tend to have suboptimal dietary habits, low physical activity levels, and poor sleep quality. The study, published in Frontiers in Nutrition, suggests that esports athletes could potentially enhance their cognitive performance by improving their nutritional intake and sleep habits.


Esports is a rapidly growing industry with a significant global revenue and audience, and esports athletes undergo intense training to compete at a high level. The researchers noted that optimizing nutrition, physical activity, and sleep are important factors for enhancing performance in traditional athletes. However, limited research has focused on these aspects in esports athletes.


Previous studies have explored the effects of individual micronutrients like creatine and non-nutritive substances such as caffeine on cognitive performance, but a comprehensive understanding of nutrition’s impact on esports athletes is lacking.


“We are interested in peak cognitive performance in challenging environments (sports, military, occupational) and factors that enhance and degrade performance (nutrition sleep exercise),” said study author Steven E. Riechman, an associate professor of kinesiology and sport management at Texas A&M University.


“It has been shown that top athletes have certain enhanced cognitive abilities but there was limited knowledge in esport athletes where you might expect these elite gamers to have superior visual processing abilities. Additionally, perception of gamer lifestyle would not fit with the lifestyle normally associated with an elite athlete but there was limited information on what behaviors they actually exhibit.”


The researchers recruited 119 participants (103 males and 16 females) who were esports athletes. The participants were classified as professional, elite, or avid esports athletes. To be eligible for the study, participants had to be between 16 and 35 years old and have acceptable vision. The participants reported gaming an average of 6.33 days per week, with an average of 4.82 hours spent gaming in one sitting. The most popular game types were action (e.g. Fortnite) and action-adventure games (e.g. Halo).


Nutrition tracking was done using the Automated Self-Administered 24-Hour Dietary Recall (ASA24) software. Participants were asked to record their food intake for 10 days, and the data was used to estimate their energy and nutrient intake. A Registered Dietitian reviewed the nutrition reports and provided feedback if necessary.


To monitor physical activity and sleep, participants wore a LETSCOM Smart Band on their nondominant wrist. The Smart Band tracked steps, heart rate, and sleep patterns. Participants were instructed to wear the device for at least 8 continuous days.


The researchers also conducted visual cognitive performance testing using the Neurotracker X (NTx) 3D software program. Participants completed 20 cognitive training sessions over 8 days. The training sessions involved tracking multiple moving objects in a 3D virtual space. The researchers measured the participants’ speed threshold, which is the level at which they correctly identified the target objects, and assessed their cognitive resilience in sustain training sessions.


The average food intake of esports athletes did not meet the standards for a nutritious, well-balanced diet based on the USDA Dietary Guidelines. The participants consumed fewer calories than recommended, and their intake of certain micronutrients, such as magnesium, zinc, folate, omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and choline, did not meet the recommendations. On average, the participants consumed excessive amounts of fat and sodium, which can have negative effects on cognitive performance.


Regarding physical activity, the researchers found that the esports athletes had an average of only 3,941 steps per day. This falls significantly below the CDC’s recommendation of 10,000 steps per day. The participants also did not engage in moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity as recommended.


The esports athletes had shorter overall sleep durations, averaging about 7.42 hours per night, and poor sleep quality. Their sleep patterns were characterized by later sleep onset and sleep offset.


The esports athletes’ cognitive performance, as measured by the Neurotracker X (NTx) software, was not significantly higher than that of average individuals. “We were surprised that the visual tracking performance in these elite/pro gamers was similar to the general population,” Riechman told PsyPost. “We thought that their performance would greatly exceed the general population and be similar to professional athletes.”


Importantly, the researchers also found that nutritional factors and sleep health were associated with cognitive performance. It was found that participants who consumed the recommended amount of protein (0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight) performed significantly better on the NTx sessions than those who did not consume enough protein. Participants who met the recommended intake for riboflavin, phosphorous, vitamin B12, and selenium also performed significantly better.


Participants who reported feeling sleepier exhibited reduced cognitive resilience. This suggests that improving sleep quality could potentially enhance cognitive performance in esports athletes.


The findings provide evidence “that lifestyle does impact cognitive performance,” Riechman said. “If an elite/pro gamer wants to perform better, this article provides evidence of some of the things they can do. With increased revenue and competition in the gaming world, many are not taking advantage of some great tools to improve success.”


But when examining the relationship between physical activity and cognitive performance/resilience, no significant associations were found. Physical activity levels did not have a significant impact on cognitive performance in this study.


“There are limitations to a study done remotely and not controlled in the laboratory, although we made great strides in doing this effectively,” Riechman said. “In order to prove our lifestyle factors make a difference in performance, we must conduct a controlled trial in which we attempt to optimize one or many of these factors to demonstrate that performance is improved compared to a control group.”

 

The study, “Nutrition, lifestyle, and cognitive performance in esport athletes“, was authored by Jenna B. Goulart, Logan S. Aitken, Saman Siddiqui, Marisa Cuevas, Jacqueline Cardenas, Karen M. Beathard, and Steven E. Riechman.

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