Why Complex Exercise Might Boost Your Brain Power ⛹️
Tons of research has shown that physical activity, in general, is linked to improvements in mood and cognitive performance. However, the mental payoff can be quite different depending on your exercise of choice. You’ve probably read, for instance, that high-intensity training elicits unique benefits for brain performance, compared to easy activity.
But what about the context in which exercise is performed, and the types of movements that you’re doing?
We have known for some time that lab animals that exercise in an “enriched” environment - meaning one where they have to confront new surroundings, deal with unpredictable situations, and solve problems - experience greater improvements in cognition than they get from either exercise or enrichment by itself.
Does this also apply to humans? Well, research comparing open skill versus closed skill exercise makes a pretty compelling case. Basically, closed skills occur in a predictable and static environment, where the activity is repetitious. Think walking, jogging, swimming, stuff like that. On the other hand, open skills involve a dynamic, unpredictable environment where you are responding to all kinds of stimuli, like in team sports, martial arts, etc. Obviously, the latter involves very different physical demands than the former. But it also pushes you more mentally. Think about what your brain has to juggle in order to score a goal in soccer, versus jogging on a treadmill. In particular, open skill exercise taxes your higher order cognitive processes - executive functions - more than closed skill activity. And this cognitive load may influence the long-term cognitive benefits that you get from that type of activity, which of course helps you in every aspect of daily life - not just sports.
This Week's Research Highlights
Researchers in New York recruited 10 middle-aged participants who were enrolled at a martial arts school. All participants were in good health and had attained the rank of black belt. The subjects took part in separate 1-hour long exercise conditions, in which they either participated in a martial arts class (open skill) or brisk walking (closed skill). Before and after each exercise session, they were administered a cognitive test. As you might expect, both walking and martial arts led to better attention and processing speed, with large effect sizes. However, only the martial arts training improved executive function. The researchers attribute this difference to the increased cortical recruitment needed to meet the complex motor demands of martial arts, compared to the more repetitive actions of walking, which in turn may lead to greater blood flow to the areas of the brain involved with executive function.
Taiwanese researchers recruited 20 young adults (mean age of 23) and had them participate in two different exercise sessions on separate days. One was 30 minutes of badminton, the other was 30 minutes of running. Importantly, participants were equipped with wireless heart rate monitors to ensure that both exercises were performed at a similar intensity (~60% of max heart rate). Before and after each session, blood samples were drawn and they were given a cognitive test to measure task-switching.
Task-switching is an executive function that involves the ability to unconsciously shift attention between one task and another. Notably, badminton resulted in a significantly greater boost in serum levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) compared to running.
BDNF is a growth factor that is involved in learning and memory (sometimes referred to as "fertilizer for your brain"). When the participants played badminton, they also experienced a reduction in task-switching cost. Normally, when you are forced to switch from one task to another, your performance in these tasks suffers (refer to this podcast for more info). So, the open skill exercise seemed to make it easier for these subjects to switch their focus between different activities, which is obviously helpful for productivity at work, school, and all kinds of other important stuff in life.
🤺 Fencing is associated with more diverse cognitive benefits and higher levels of a protein linked to greater brainpower.
Researchers in Turkey recruited 18 fencers (open skill) and 18 swimmers (closed skill) from national sport clubs, as well as a control group of 18 sedentary individuals who weren't involved in any kind of sport. All participants visited the lab for baseline blood work as well as a battery of cognitive tests. They returned 48 hours later to perform 40 minutes of running on a treadmill, followed by another round of testing. After the exercise bout, all of the athletes showed higher scores on some of the cognitive functions. However, the fencers performed better on certain tasks (visuospatial working memory, verbal fluency, selective attention). The fencers also showed higher levels of Cathepsin B at baseline and experienced a much greater boost in this protein in response to the exercise. Cathepsin B is a factor secreted by muscles in response to exercise, much like BDNF, and which has been shown to be associated with memory in humans.
Random Trivia & Weird News
🐕🦺 America’s most decorated war dog, Sergeant Stubby, participated in 17 battles on the Western Front in WWI.
Stubby was injured multiple times, but valiantly returned to the trenches once recovered. In the course of his service, he saved his regiment from surprise mustard gas attacks, found and comforted the wounded, and is alleged to have helped capture a German soldier by grabbing him by the seat of his pants (I don’t buy this at all, but it’s a good story.)
He is also the only dog to be promoted to the rank of sergeant through combat.
Podcasts We Loved This Week
- Kieron Rooney: The science of exercise, mitochondrial health and longevity. Via The Proof Podcast.
- Antonio Zadra: Why and how do we dream? Via The Joy of Why from Quanta Magazine.
Products We Are Enjoying
So, what if sports and martial arts aren’t your thing, but you nevertheless want to acquire some of the cognitive benefits associated with that mode of exercise? Well, technology may just be solving that problem in the form of virtual reality.
Meta Quest offers over 350 different games that you can immerse yourself in, either socially through multiplayer or on your own solo adventures, and you don’t need a PC or a console. We’ve been using it for a few months and have found it to be ridiculously addictive, not to mention a surprisingly good workout.
humanOS Catalog Feature of the Week
Of course, many aspects of sports nutrition are the same for both men and women, and plenty of people have done well just applying the same general guidelines across both genders. However, there are a few noteworthy differences, and better understanding of these unique considerations can lead to improved training and greater success in competition.
In this course, we cover female hormones, optimizing energy intake, specific micronutrients that are often a concern for female athletes, how to maintain optimal hydration, how to plan training at different points in the cycle, and how to avoid health issues associated with inadequate energy availability (female athlete triad). If you are a woman who trains regularly, or if you coach women/girls, this course should prove to be a useful resource for you.
Thanks for reading, enjoy the weekend, and we'll see y'all next week!