You’ve probably experienced days where you wish it was easier to power through that lengthy to-do list at work and not get distracted by every notification that pops up on your computer screen. Well, research has identified a way to help boost your focus in the same way that working out improves your physical health. But don’t worry, you don’t have to choose between the two.
Physical exercise helps improve our executive functioning, an aspect of our cognition that reduces distraction and impulsivity. Executive functioning is constantly being activated throughout the day and helps you safely drive a car, read, converse, remember your grocery list, and even resist the urge to have that tempting late-night snack.
In a recent study published in the journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, I reviewed what aspects of exercise were most effective at improving this cognitive mechanism. This included comparing how often individuals were exercising, how hard were they exercising, and what exercise activities were they performing.
People who reported getting six hours of physical activity a week showed improved executive functioning over sedentary individuals. Additionally, a group of participants who signed up for a high-intensity sprint program for a two-week period showed that they not only outperformed a control group in their measures of executive functioning by the end of their training, they also made fewer mistakes. Just think of all the email typos you could cut out just by going on that morning jog.
Another study looked at whether these improvements in cognition apply to those with ‘standing desks’ and the even more impressive ‘treadmill desk’. While these types of desks did generate improvements to other aspects of physical health after just four days, they did not get the same boost to their cognition that was seen with other moderate to high-intensity exercises.
The level of sport-expertise was also studied to see if it uniquely modifies cognitive ability. When comparing expert soccer players to amateurs, and martial artists to other physically active individuals, there were no observed differences in executive functioning, meaning that these boosts to cognition don’t discriminate based on how many gold medals you have, you just need to get out there and hustle. However, there were differences in how alert the pros were in comparison to the amateurs, indicating that their training made them more aware and reactive to their surroundings.
So, it turns out that even though your brain is an organ, it reacts to exercise just like a muscle. Add this to the long list of reasons you should lace up those shoes and get active!