One of the next big trends in fitness is combined physical-cognitive training. Older adults in the United States and abroad are concerned about staying mentally sharp and avoiding dementia as they age, while younger populations are eager to get an “edge” on their competitors (sports or business) and are now more aware than ever of the benefits of training their minds as well as their bodies. Others just want to be able to “gamify” their exercise programming to make it more fun and engaging. Here are just a few fun low-tech ways to start introducing cognitive load into your exercise programs.
Dual-tasking occurs when a person is asked to perform a physical activity and an unrelated cognitive task at the same time. For example, walking while counting backwards by 7s; performing repetitions of a resistance exercise while naming words that start with the letter “F”; or solving basic math problems while riding a stationary bike. During these activities, the brain is being nourished with blood, oxygen, glucose and other positive neurotrophins that can enhance cognitive performance. Several studies show that dual-tasking can improve cognitive performance in some populations, even when cognitive tasks are performed following aerobic exercise (Karssemeijer et al., 2017; Bamidis et al., 2014). However, a key element seems to be that the exercise must be performed at a moderate-to-vigorous intensity.
Exercise Flow Drill
There are many different aspects to memory including immediate and delayed recall, which can be challenged by giving a sequence of movements or tasks that the individual must perform in the same manner and in the same order. The movements can be demonstrated without verbal cueing or can be verbally described, or both. A series may include three to eight movements, which can be given all at once or built upon the previous sequence (as in the classic “Simon” electronic game). The movements can be almost any exercise movement or task.
To work specifically on delayed recall, have clients recall a series of movements that you taught them at the beginning of a session. This is a natural extension to any immediate recall challenges that you have already introduced. However, it is important to let them know that they will be asked to perform these same movements later on. When they struggle recalling the movements, offer simple hints to help jog their memories. Hints can be open-ended or multiple-choice such as, “Was the next movement a lunge, squat, jump or row?” with one of the choices being the correct one.
Playing Card Drill
How quickly an individual can receive, process and act on information can be challenged in a variety of different ways. A basic example is to set up four different colored (or numbered) cones in a row in front of a client. Tell the client that when you call out a color (or number), he or she is to sprint to that cone and return to the starting position as quickly as possible. A more advanced version could involve the use of a deck of playing cards. Set up four cones in a square pattern and have the client stand in the middle of the square. Tell him or her that the front two cones represent black cards (spades and clubs), while the back two cones represent red cards (hearts and diamonds). The right two cones represent face cards and the left two cones represent numbered cards. When you hold up a card from the deck, instruct the client to quickly run around the correct cone and return to the starting position as quickly as possible. For example, in this case, the Queen of Diamonds card would require the client to run to the back right cone.
Tasks often require the use of several cognitive functions simultaneously. For the Clock Drill, have clients imagine that they are standing in the middle of a clock face and make sure there is room for them to move in all directions. Call out a time and have them step or lunge toward that time on the clock and return to the starting position as quickly as possible. You can give them one number at a time or three to four at once that they must remember to do in proper sequence. Variations include stepping to even numbers with the right foot and stepping to odd numbers with the left; stepping with the right or left foot only; or performing a different movement when a specific time is called (e.g., do a jump squat if 12:00 is called). To increase the complexity of this game, have the clients all turn 90 degrees to the right, which means they are now facing 3:00 on the clock face. Repeat the game in the same manner as before. This will be much more challenging and require more time for clients to repeat because their spatial orientation has been changed. This drill works on auditory, memory, reaction time, visual attention (if numbers are shown), dynamic balance, dual tasking, coordination and other variables, depending on how it is performed.
Color Toss Drill
Take two tennis balls of different colors and toss them to your client, who tosses them back. Specify that one color is to be caught and thrown with the right hand only while the other color ball is to be caught and thrown with the left hand only. Variations include speeding up the drill; returning the ball in the same or opposite manner in which it was received (bounced, underhand toss, overhand toss, etc.); calling out a number when the ball is tossed, which tells the receiver how to return it (e.g., even numbers for a bounce pass, odd numbers for a toss); and performing a specific movement when receiving a certain color (e.g., squat on yellow or perform a jumping jack on green).
Companies such as SmartFit produce wall-mounted electronic panels and portable electronic targets to simultaneously challenge fitness and cognition. The panels contain small circles that display colors, shapes, letters or numbers that light up, forcing a reaction from the user such as tapping, kicking, punching or throwing a ball at that circle. The number of ways to integrate cognitive and physical task demands is nearly endless.
These are just a few of the low-tech ways to use exercise as a way to enhance cognition. It is important to keep in mind that this is a fast-emerging area of study, and researchers continue to uncover new insights and exciting directions about the intricate connection between movement and cognition and optimal strategies to enhance the health of both.
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Bamidis, P.D. et al (2014). A review of physical and cognitive interventions in aging. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 44, 206220.
Cody Sipe has an extensive background in the fitness industry with 20 years of experience as a personal trainer, fitness instructor, program director, exercise physiologist and club owner. He is currently an Associate Professor and Director of Clinical Research in the physical therapy program at Harding University. He has spent his career researching, developing and practicing the most effective training strategies to improve function in older adults. He has completed certifications as an ACSM Exercise Specialist, ACSM Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist, FallProof Balance and Mobility Enhancement Specialist and more. His secondary area of expertise is in the prevention and management of chronic disease conditions, especially those that accompany the aging process such as arthritis, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and osteoporosis. In 2005 he was honored with the IDEA Program Director of the Year award. He has presented internationally, served on boards and committees and/or published articles for most of the top fitness organizations in the world including: IDEA, CanFitPro, ACSM, ACE, AFPA, Club Industry, International Council on Active Aging, YMCA, Australian Fitness Network, Italian Fitness Federation, Canadian Fitness Business, Athletic Business, World Congress on Activity and Aging, Medical Fitness Association and British Columbia Parks and Recreation Association.