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Three ideas for using physical activity to boost your cognitive performance

Did you know that boosting your cognitive function is not just about training and mindset? Physical fitness plays a huge part in cognitive fitness. But specifically – how?

Imagine yourself driving a car at 300 km/h. Your heart rate is at 80 % of max for the second hour straight. At every turn, you face forces of 2 to 6 Gs. But the physical demands are not your biggest worry – cognitive demands are. The car’s steering wheel has 35 buttons; you need to stay vigilant to 19 other cars on the track; team strategies keep changing over the radio; injury or death lurk behind every corner. Your primary goal is to stay focused and sharp.

For that, an athlete needs to be cognitively fit. But did you know that boosting your cognitive function is not just about training and mindset? Physical fitness plays a huge part in cognitive fitness. But specifically – how? Our clients (athletes and business professionals alike) often ask: what type of physical exercise should I do to boost cognitive performance? So, let’s recap some basics about cognitive function and share a few practical tips to boost both physical and cognitive fitness.

What is cognitive performance exactly?

Enhancing cognitive function in knowledge work receives a lot of attention. But what is it exactly? Our key cognitive functions are also called executive functions, which include:

  • Selective attention – your ability to allocate cognitive resources appropriately, e.g., focusing on reading a long email
  • Working memory capacity – your ability to hold and process information, e.g., remembering key points from the email, determining a response, and composing a reply
  • Response inhibition – your willpower and ability to suppress actions, e.g., not giving a curt or aggressive reply, but taking the time to formulate yourself politely
  • Cognitive flexibility – your ability to switch between tasks and consider multiple concepts, e.g., balancing the immediate action required in that email and long-term relationship building
  • Long-term memory – your ability to hold crucial information indefinitely

For elite athletes, all of these are crucial. Sports is both a mental and a physical game. And it should go without saying that these are critical for work performance, too. Enhancing cognitive performance can help you stand out, hit your goals, and achieve the next level of excellence.

What’s the link between physical and cognitive fitness?

There is a solid body of research showing that exercise can improve cognitive function. For example, one study showed that a bout of high-intensity exercise boosted performance on a colour-word matching task assessing decision making (Kujach et al., 2018). More concretely, participants did a 2-minute warmup on a bike, followed by 8 minutes of high intensity exercise: 8 sets of 30 seconds at 60 % effort and 30 seconds of rest. Participants who did the exercise scored significantly higher on the decision-making task that followed. But it’s not just a specific exercise or a specific task: another study showed that both light and moderate exercise, in groups with varying levels of fitness, significantly improved scores on tasks measuring memory recall (Zuniga et al., 2019).

In practice, we use exercise to get Formula 1 drivers physically and mentally prepared for a race. In an F1 race, drivers need cognitive abilities like decision making, multi-tasking, attention (focus), arousal control, memory, and fast reaction time to process information at high speed on the track. Our Performance Coaches take their F1 drivers through a staged warm-up designed to enhance the driver’s cognitive function and prepare them for the demands of the race. The warm-up increases blood flow and raises core body temperature. Exercises are chosen to activate and prime the nervous system, making it ready to perform.

So, research and practice clearly show the impacts and benefits of exercise on cognitive function – but what can we do from a practical perspective?

Three exercise ideas to boost your daily cognitive function

1. A 20 to 30-minute session to improve memory recall

Do you have a task that requires memorisation? Think a student before a test or giving a presentation where you need to remember facts and figures. Try this recipe from one study that improved memory recall (Pontifex et al., 2016): Do a 20–30-minute session at any exercise intensity (between 64 % and 95 % of max heart rate) 1–2 hours after memorisation. Then 20 to 60 minutes before recall, repeat the exercise.
Why not try this next time and see how it impacts your memory and performance?

2. A short mid-day walk to clear your head and boost creativity

A series of studies at Stanford University showed that walking either indoors or outdoors can improve creative inspiration by an average of 60 % (Oppezzo & Schwartz, 2014). These improvements in creativity lasted from 4 to 16 minutes depending on the situation.
Try this before your next team brainstorming session, or before starting a task where you need to think outside the box.

3. Short morning and lunchtime exercise to de-stress

There are multiple protocols and interventions of different types of exercise to manage or reduce stress. In fact, virtually all forms of exercise – whether aerobic, high intensity, weight training, yoga, or Tai Chi – tend to reduce stress. One very practical method is breaking the exercise into two 10-to-15-minute sessions, one before work and one at lunch time when possible. This has been shown to significantly help combat stress throughout the day (Jackson, 2013). Try popping this dual-session setup into your calendar on one day next week and see how it fits you.

Most importantly though, remember this: No matter what your exercise regime looks like, if you enjoy it, it is bound to be beneficial to your performance and health. Whether it boosts your specific performance that day or makes 80-year-old you sharper and more active, physical fitness and mental fitness go hand in hand.

Pete McKnight, Hintsa Performance

Pete McKnight, world-class performance coach of Olympic athletes and Formula 1 drivers, explores the scientific link between body and brain: what do we know about how physical and mental health interact, and what can we do about it? Drawing on learnings from elite athletes, Pete gives concrete takeaways for the listeners.

Sources

Jackson, Erica M. Ph.D., FACSM STRESS RELIEF, ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal: May/June 2013 - Volume 17 - Issue 3 - p 14-19 doi: 10.1249/FIT.0b013e31828cb1c9

Kujach S, Byun K, Hyodo K, et al. A transferable high-intensity intermittent exercise improves executive performance in association with dorsolateral prefrontal activation in young adults. Neuroimage. 2018;169:117-125. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.12.003

Oppezzo, M., & Schwartz, D. L. (2014). Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(4), 1142–1152. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0036577

Pontifex, M., Gwizdala, K., Parks, A. et al. The Association between Physical Activity During the Day and Long-Term Memory Stability. Sci Rep 6, 38148 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep38148

Zuniga KE, Mueller M, Santana AR, Kelemen WL. Acute aerobic exercise improves memory across intensity and fitness levels. Memory. 2019;27(5):628-636. doi:10.1080/09658211.2018.1546875