A Smarter Idea: Combining Mental & Physical Exercise

By | April 23, 2018


Walking for one hour a few times a week can increase the size of brain regions responsible for attention and memory. There’s also a strong correlation between high lifetime amounts of physical activity and better cognitive skills later in life.

Giving New Brain Cells Something to Do

It’s generally accepted that a limited number of new brain cells can be produced in adult mammal brains. A study of exercise in animals found that after 2 weeks of daily, voluntary aerobic exercise there was a 50% increase in new neurons generated in the hippocampus (memory center of the brain), and even a single day of exercise increased the number of new brain cells produced.

There’s a catch, however. Regardless of how many new neurons are created from aerobic exercise, many will die within 1 to 2 weeks if they aren’t integrated into the brain’s network. A way to rescue and preserve these new cells is through combining physical exercise with intensive cognitive training.


Work Your Brain and Body At The Same Time

Research recently conducted in the UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences has pushed the envelope on how to increase cognitive performance through combining physical and mental exercises.

Dr. Sarah McEwen was the lead investigator on a study in older adults who reported having memory problems. Research participants were randomized to either 4 weeks of supervised strategy-based memory training done simultaneously while stationary cycling (the SIM group), or memory training only *after* the stationary cycling exercise was completed (the SEQ group).

The SIM group, but not the SEQ group, had a significant improvement on composite memory following the intervention and transfer to non-trained reasoning abilities and complex attention.

In other words, the people who underwent memory training *while pedaling on a bike* had better brain function measures than the group that didn’t do any cognitive exercises while on the bike.

Exercise and Cognitive Performance

The reasons for this extra kick in cognitive performance from the group that trained their brain and body at the same time:

  • Aerobic exercise releases a cascade of neurochemicals (including Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor – BDNF) that support brain health and provides greater amounts of oxygen to the brain getting the brain in an optimal state for learning,
  • Focused cognitive training, such as practicing real-life memory strategies, will be encoded better in the brain and have a broader reach to impact daily life functioning,
  • Parallel-tasking of two easy or moderately difficulty tasks actually benefits performance on those two tasks due to increased engagement and focus.

Continued new skill acquisition in life is the key to supporting a healthy brain, so switch up your physical and mental training program every 3 months.

Ideas? Combine your aerobic activity (5 minute exercise intervals on a treadmill) with learning a new motor skill, such as an activity that engages complex and coordinated movements (such as table tennis, juggling, playing the piano).

New gym idea: add a piano on the workout floor!

Contributing Author: Dr. Sarah McEwen is a Cognitive Psychologist at UCLA and UCSD, Associate Editor at NeuroReport and the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and a leading expert in the field of exercise and brain plasticity. She is an NSCA-certified personal trainer and the Owner of Genius Gyms, a fitness and technology company in San Diego, CA offering personal and group training of simultaneously training of the body and brain to improve both mental and physical performance for all ages.