Some Cognitive Activity May Improve Exercise

Some Cognitive Activity May Improve Exercise

Medically reviewed in February 2021

When British Freestyle Unicycle Champion (2010-2013) Sam Goodburn juggles 5 pins and rides his unicycle across a tightrope you know you’re seeing multi-tasking at its highest level. But for more down-to-earth sorts (like us) the idea of riding even a stationary bike and juggling—or counting backwards—seems likely to slow us down so neither pedaling nor counting would proceed very efficiently.

But that’s not always what happens—and it even surprised researchers at the University of Florida who asked older folks to do cognitive tasks such as repeating lists of numbers in reverse order while riding a stationary bike. The scientists assumed doing two things at once would impair both functions. But they found stationary bicycle speeds actually increased when people were given simple tasks to do while pedaling.

True, as brain games got tougher, the volunteers slowed down. The double-demand did start to impinge on the amount of attention they could give each task. But the senior pedalers were still going faster than before they started the cognitive exercise. How is that possible? Researchers speculate that the brain’s reward system (dopamine) became activated when dual tasks were accomplished. That pleasure spurred folks on to do more. We’ve known that exercise improves cognitive ability, but does this suggest that cognitive activity can improve exercise? Maybe.

One note of caution: The findings don’t mean texting and driving or biking with headphones is a smart or safe move, ever! The stationary bike study was done in a controlled environment where it was nearly impossible to get injured.

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