3 Ideas for Using Physical Activity to Boost Your Cognitive Performance

Imagine yourself driving a car at 300 km/h. Your heart rate is at 80% of max for the duration of the 90-minute race. There is no rest. At every turn, you face forces of 2 to 6 Gs. You are hot – it’s over 50°C, you’re thirsty and breathing heavily. But the physical demands are not your only concern – cognitive demands are too. The car’s steering wheel has over 35 buttons and switches; you need to stay vigilant to 19 other cars on the track; team strategies keep changing over the radio; injury or even death could lurk behind every corner. The pressure is on and your primary goal is to stay focused and sharp. Welcome to the world of Formula 1!

For this sport an athlete needs to be cognitively fit. But did you know that boosting your cognitive function is not just about training your brain and mindset? Physical fitness plays a huge part in cognitive fitness. But specifically – how? Our clients, both athletes and business professionals alike, often ask: what type of physical exercise should I do to boost cognitive performance? So, let’s recap some basics about cognitive function and share a few practical tips to boost both physical and cognitive fitness.

What is cognitive performance exactly?

Enhancing cognitive function in knowledge work receives a lot of attention. But what is it exactly? Our key cognitive functions are also called executive functions, which include:

  • Selective attention – your ability to allocate cognitive resources appropriately, e.g., focusing on reading a long email and having the ability to pick out the key information.
  • Working memory capacity – your ability to hold and process information, e.g., remembering key points from the email, determining a response, and composing a reply.
  • Response inhibition – your will power and ability to suppress actions, e.g., not giving a harsh or aggressive reply, but having the ability formulate responses politely yet remaining focused and adapting your behaviour to suit the goal.
  • Cognitive flexibility – your ability to switch between tasks and consider multiple concepts, e.g., remaining open minded to a new concept that initially seems contradictory to the objective yet once reflected upon could be adapted and used to work towards the goal.
  • Long-term memory – your ability to hold crucial information indefinitely

For knowledge workers these cognitive functions are crucial to be able to perform well and maintain excellence in the workplace. Equally, sport is both a mental and a physical game and these elements of function are paramount for top level performance. Athletes focus on both the physical and mental aspects of training to enable them to perform to the very best of their ability.

What’s the link between physical and cognitive fitness?

There is a solid body of research showing that exercise can improve cognitive function. For example, one study showed that a bout of high-intensity exercise boosted performance on a colour-word matching task assessing decision making. More concretely, participants did a 2-minute warmup on a bike, followed by 8 minutes of high intensity exercise: 8 sets of 30 seconds at 60% effort and 30 seconds of rest. Participants who did the exercise scored significantly higher on the decision-making task that followed. But it’s not just a specific exercise or a specific task: another study showed that both light and moderate exercise, in groups with varying levels of fitness, significantly improved scores on tasks measuring memory recall.

In practice, we use exercise to get Formula 1 drivers physically and mentally prepared for a race. In a Formula 1 race, drivers need cognitive abilities like decision making, multi-tasking, attention (focus), arousal control, memory, and fast reaction time to process information at high speed on the track. Our Performance Coaches take their Formula 1 drivers through a staged warm-up designed to enhance the driver’s cognitive function and prepare them for the demands of the race. The warm-up increases blood flow and raises core body temperature. Exercises are chosen to activate and prime the nervous system, making them ready to perform.

If the research clearly shows the impacts and benefits of exercise on cognitive function, what can we do from a practical perspective to improve our cognitive performance?

3 exercise ideas to boost your daily cognitive function

1. A 20 to 30-minute session to improve memory recall

Do you have a task that requires memorisation? An exam or presentation on the horizon where you need to remember facts and figures? Try this recipe from one study that improved memory recall: Do a 20-30 minute exercise session (between 64% and 95% of max heart rate) 1-2 hours after memorisation. Then do 20 to 60 minutes exercise before recall is required. Why not try this next time and see how it impacts your memory and performance?

2. A short mid-day walk to clear your head and boost creativity

A series of studies at Stanford University showed that walking either indoors or outdoors can improve creative inspiration by an average of 60%. These improvements in creativity lasted from 4 to 16 minutes depending on the situation.

Try this just before your next team brainstorming session, or before starting a task where you need to think outside the box and be expectant for creativity to flow!

3. Use short exercise sessions to de-stress

There are multiple protocols and interventions of different types of exercise to manage or reduce stress. In fact, virtually all forms of exercise – whether aerobic, high intensity, weight training, yoga, or Tai Chi – tend to reduce stress. One very practical method is breaking the exercise into two 10 to 15 minute sessions, one before work and one at lunch time when possible. This has been shown to significantly help combat stress throughout the day.

Formula 1 driver, knowledge worker, retired grandparent; all can improve physical and cognitive performance through exercise.

If you would like to know even more about the many benefits of physical activity, watch what our experts had to say about this in a video below. You can also find some easy at-home workouts you try right now here.