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By Hannah Lundblad, Macalester College
Ugh, how long is this workout? I just want to be done!
This is a common sentiment among people who exercise. It is well-accepted knowledge that physical exercise is important for both the brain and the body. We’ve all heard about physical exercise releasing brain chemicals that make us happy and feel good, right? Being fully committed and engaged, however, is difficult. Developing a negative attitude toward working out is easy to do.
Exercising can be perceived as a necessary burden in order to create healthy lifestyle habits. Because of this, many people seek distractions while exercising. If you listen to music while biking or watch TV while walking on the treadmill, these diversions might be helping you to avoid thinking about the physical activity itself. Distractions while exercising can be seen in a positive light when we understand more about the broader health benefits of combining both mental tasks and physical activity.
Recent studies looking at the combination of physical exercise and cognitive exercise suggest a new potential route for improving overall health in older individuals. At the same time, this combination promotes more engaging ways to be active with both the mind and the body.
Prior to the 1960s, it was a common thought that neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons (brain cells), could not occur in adults. This misconception supported the prevalence of cognitive decline and neurodegeneration in older populations. Our current understanding of adult neurogenesis challenges this previous way of thinking by telling us that older individuals have the ability to change the functioning of their brains for the better!
You might now think, what can I proactively do to keep my brain healthy with age? Karen, a 59 year-old member of Cardiomelon, a company that pairs brain and body fitness in an online format, says: “I want to keep doing things that nurture a healthy environment, whether that be exercise, reading, doing puzzles or staying connected socially.”
Let’s focus on the exercise component in Karen’s list of long-term health goals.
What Happens To Our Brains When We Exercise?
To answer that question, Carlo Liegro, Gabriella Schiera and their team from the University of Palermo in Italy, point out that during physical activity, there are many different signaling pathways that occur within the brain. Some of those pathways can lead to changes in a specific gene called the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) gene. The presence of BDNF in the brain from physical activity plays an important role in memory and learning. Simply put, physical activity allows the brain to alter its capabilities, more generally called neuroplasticity.
How Can Mental Distractions During Exercise Be Beneficial?
One research study led by Dr. Hyuntae Park, from the Department of Health Care Science at Dong-A University in South Korea, described a combined form of physical and cognitive exercise called “cognicise.” This included performing cognitive activities, such as basic math calculations and memory/word games, at the same time as engaging in aerobic exercises, such as walking and climbing stairs. The older individuals with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) in this study who were part of the “cognicise” group later showed improvements in executive function and working memory.
A separate review of 41 research studies led by Hanna Gavelin from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Melbourne in Australia and the Department of Psychology at Umeå University in Sweden looked at the effectiveness of combined physical exercise and cognitive training. These research studies included three different styles of combined physical activity and cognitive training: simultaneous, sequential and exergaming (defined as physically and cognitively challenging video games). The results showed that in healthy older individuals as well as older individuals with MCI, the simultaneous and sequential combined programs had similar cognitive results to cognitive training alone and similar physical function results to physical exercise alone.
Types of studies such as Park’s and Gavelin’s reveal the potential benefit of combined physical and cognitive components. Working your brain with cognitive tasks might also make exercising more enjoyable because of the healthy, fun distractions!
Brain and Body Health Resources
Several fitness companies have started diving into the benefit of combined brain and body exercise. Here are a few to get you started:
Cardiomelon offers a fitness program that incorporates brain and body exercises into short 20-30 minute online workouts, meaning that cognitive tasks are administered during physical activities. An example exercise might prompt you to list names of countries that start with the letter ‘S’ while simultaneously doing squats. These workouts are aimed to improve both the physical and cognitive health of individuals over the age of 50.
“The memory exercises and the various types of neurological challenges help a person change their focus from learning a movement to remembering a fact. Working on changing focus keeps the brain agile,” says Amy Hodge, one of the experienced Cardiomelon fitness trainers.
2. Total HealthWorks
Total HealthWorks offers another online brain and body exercise program that provides both live online classes and videos to watch at your own leisure. An example exercise might include asking you to remember/recall words later in the workout. The goal of these workouts is to encourage older individuals to take charge of and improve their overall health, especially those with Parkinson’s Disease or Alzheimer’s Disease diagnoses.
3. Ageless Grace
Ageless Grace presents a fitness and wellness program that you can sign up for and access online. Creator Denise Medved reflects on aging positively and focuses her exercises on the synergy between the brain and the body. Her 21 exercise tools emphasize areas of health, such as cognitive function, mobility/flexibility and coordination.
Current research about combined physical and cognitive exercise might provide us with possible answers to how we can positively shape our distraction-seeking mentalities as well as how we can improve our brain and body health even as we get older. Adding cognitive tasks to physical activities challenges our brains in healthy ways while providing us with an inspiration to exercise.