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James Hewitt
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How to use exercise to boost focus, upgrade willpower & enhance your memory

Many of us know that exercise is an effective way to improve cognitive performance, but the next obvious questions are “why, what type, how hard, and for how long?”. Read on to find out why exercise provides such a powerful boost to our brains, discover the different ways in which exercise improves cognition, learn about the minimum effective exercise dose that is required to enjoy its benefits, how long these benefits last for and an idea for applying exercise as a tactical tool to enhance your cognitive performance.

What is the best way to boost your brain?

Life and work make a lot of demands that, arguably, our ancient brains are not built for. I feel that I’m managing more information flows than ever before as I try to stop my e-mail inbox from over-flowing, do my best to stay in touch with family and friends, and keep up to date with my ever-growing to-do list. Simultaneously, I’m managing increasingly complex professional challenges, requiring me to focus my efforts on solving problems, collaborating across continents and coming up with creative solutions.

Like many people today, I’m interested in findings ways to maintain and improve my cognitive performance. Through my research at Loughborough University, I’m well-placed to hear about new opportunities to achieve this. Despite being bombarded with opportunities to boost my brain with headsets, pills, potions and smartphone apps, the weight of evidence suggests that one of the most potent performance enhancers is practically free and remarkably simple: exercise.

Physical activity and cognitive performance: short term and long-term gains

Much of the evidence linking physical activity to improved cognitive function relates to the potential for physical activity to stimulate structural and functional changes in our brains. The benefits of these changes are ‘chronic’ and include protecting us from declines in cognitive function as we age.

However, I’m also interested in the ways that exercise can provide ‘acute’, short-term boosts to cognitive performance. If I need to perform well in a meeting, or on a challenging assignment, for example. There is a significant body of evidence describing how physical activity can also result in immediate improvements in cognition, particularly concerning executive functions, cognitive flexibility and long-term memory.

  • Selective attention: exercise can improve the ability to allocate our cognitive resources appropriately. E.g. focus on reading a long e-mail.
  • Working memory capacity: exercise can enhance the ability to hold and process information. E.g. Being able to remember the key points in the e-mail, decide how to respond, keep the key points and plan in mind, while you compose the reply.
  • Response inhibition: exercise seems to be able to improve our willpower in terms of our ability to suppress actions. This capability enables us to adapt our behaviour to suit our goals. E.g. Resisting the urge to check and read the new e-mail that just arrived, until you have finished writing and have sent the previous e-mail.
  • Cognitive flexibility: Studies using electroencephalogram (EEG), which monitor the brain during tasks by measuring the electrical activity of the brain, have demonstrated that higher fitness is also associated with increased cognitive flexibility; the ability to switch between tasks and consider multiple concepts.
  • Long-term memory: Physical exercise can improve performance in tasks requiring memorisation, but timing matters. Engaging in physical activity during the period 1 to 2-hours following a memory task may be detrimental the ability to maintain the memory. In contrast, physical activity during the period 1-hour before memory retrieval (needing to remember information from the task), was associated with superior memory performance.

 

Physical activity is also associated with a range of wellbeing psychological related benefits, including:

  • Decreased anxiety
  • Reduced depressive symptoms
  • Increased assertiveness
  • Improved confidence
  • Better emotional stability

Exercise works, but how much is enough?

We still have a lot to learn about the links between physical activity and cognitive performance, but across cross age-groups, in healthy populations, relative to other approaches, some of the most persuasive evidence for cognitive performance enhancement is still found in physical activity. So, what is the optimum dose of physical activity to improve cognitive performance? Well, that depends on what you are hoping to achieve.

The optimal dose of activity for cognitive performance enhancement

In practice, I use exercise tactically, as a cognitive performance enhancer, on a reasonably regular basis.

Improving executive function

It seems that slightly higher intensity, at around 85% max. Heart Rate is quite effective at improving executive function, which facilitates our ability to concentrate and resist distraction. I generally find it easier to focus on the morning (read more here about using timing to enhance performance), but I often need to perform well, with high levels of focus and concentration, in the afternoon, too. To provide a boost to my post-lunch cognition, I’ll often squeeze in a short interval session, outside if the weather permits, or use something like the Sufferfest if I’m stuck in a hotel gym.

Improving memory:

For example, many of the presentations that I deliver take place in hotel conference rooms. Typically, if the presentation was scheduled for the afternoon, I would revise the keynote content in the morning, do some other work, meetings or relax for 1 – 2 hours, then go for a 30-minute bike ride in the hotel gym at lunch-time, cool down, get a shower, and get on stage.

Improving mood:

As the table summary suggests, and as I’m sure many of you have experienced, almost any kind of exercise seems able to provide a mood boost.

What works for you?

Regular exercise can provide a simple, effective way for healthy people to enhance their cognitive performance. This may offer significant benefits in life and work. Perhaps you will work smarter and faster. Maybe you can achieve the same level of performance, with less stress. Whatever the case, there are plenty of great reasons to get moving. What are your experiences of using exercise to improve your cognitive performance? Let me know in the comments, or on twitter.

References

  • Basso J.C., et al. Acute exercise improves prefrontal cortex but not hippocampal function in healthy adults. J Int Neuropsychol Soc. 2015;21(10):791-801.
  • Basso, J. C., & Suzuki, W. A. (2017). The Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood, Cognition, Neurophysiology, and Neurochemical Pathways : A Review, 2, 127–152. https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040
  • Guiney H. & Machado, L. (2013) Benefits of regular aerobic exercise for executive functioning in healthy populations. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. 20(1) p. 73-86
  • Mandolesi, L., Polverino, A., Montuori, S., Foti, F., Ferraioli, G., Sorrentino, P., & Sorrentino, G. (2018). Effects of physical exercise on cognitive functioning and wellbeing: Biological and psychological benefits. Frontiers in Psychology, 9(APR), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00509
  • Marsh, H. W., and Sonstroem, R. J. (1995). Importance ratings and specific components of physical self-concept: relevance to predicting global components of self-concept and exercise. J. Sport Exerc. Psychol. 17, 84–104. doi: 10.1123/jsep.17.1.84
  • Maroulakis E, Zervas Y. Effects of aerobic exercise on mood of adult women. Percept Mot Skills. 1993;76(3 Pt 1):795-801.
  • McMorris, T. (2016) State of the Art and Future Research in Exercise-Cognition Interaction: Neuroscience Perspectives. Exercise-Cognition Interaction: Neuroscience Perspectives (pp. 459-460). Elsevier Science.
  • Pontifex, M. B., Gwizdala, K. L., Parks, A. C., Pfeiffer, K. A., & Fenn, K. M. (2016). The Association between Physical Activity during the Day and Long-Term Memory Stability. Scientific Reports, 6(July), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep38148
  • Reed J, Ones DS. The effect of acute aerobic exercise on positive activated affect: A meta-analysis. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. 2006;7(5):477-514.
  • Themanson, J.R., Pontifex, M.B. & Hillman, C.H. (2008) Fitness and action monitoring: evidence for improved cognitive flexibility in young adults. Neuroscience. 157(2) p.319–328

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