Increasing Your Cognitive Performance | Part 1: Physical Exercise

We live in a fast-paced, ever-connected and over-stimulated world. In terms of business, the hustle is real. Productivity. Performance. Results. You are expected to fire on all cylinders, all the time. This places pressure on your cognitive functions that are harnessed to make better decisions and solve complex problems. How can you sustain optimal cognition naturally to maintain performance while not burning out?

In this three-part series we look at natural ways to enhance cognitive functions and wellbeing. This month we focus on why physical exercise is important in terms of cognitive functions and look at how it can improve your daily performance as part of a holistic approach to mental fitness.

What is cognition and why is it important?

Cognition has been defined as: “the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses”. It is a rather broad concept that encompasses a variety of intellectual functions and processes including focus, attention, knowledge acquisition and formation, memory, judgement, evaluation and reasoning, to mention a few.

Considering the above, it is not hard to see why cognition is so important for high-level performance. Cognitive processes are directly related to applying existing knowledge, and generating new knowledge. This knowledge is harnessed to better inform creative problem-solving and effective decision-making.

Our cognitive functions can, however, be hampered by various lifestyle factors such as age, sleep deprivation, dehydration, inadequate nutrition as well as depression and stress. The route to sustaining high-level cognitive performance therefore requires a multi-pronged, holistic approach to tackle the problem.

So how do you protect your cognitive functions and improve performance?

Enhancing cognitive functioning through exercise

The physical benefits of exercise — improving physical condition, fighting disease and increasing energy — are well documented. However, beyond physical strength and fitness, research also shows that exercise contributes to maintaining and improving mental fitness.

Neuroscientists have discovered that chronic stress and high levels of cortisol can damage the brain. According to Christopher Bergland, author of The Athlete’s Way, “chronic stressanxiety, and depression have been linked to atrophy or loss of neurons”. The primary hormone triggered during the degeneration of neurons seems to be cortisol, which appears to shrink the hippocampus. Exercise, on the other hand, has been linked to the growth of new neurons and can contribute to delaying long-term cognitive degeneration.

Exercise has been found to act as an environmental factor that  promotes neuroplasticity in the brain. Neuroplasticity is an important feature of the nervous system, which can modify itself in response to experience. This contributes to, amongst other things, better memory and learning. Aerobic exercise, for example, raises the heart rate, which increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain. The increased flow of oxygen to the brain leads to the production of neurons (neurogenesis) in certain parts of the brain that control memory and thinking. Studies have found that exercise increases grey matter volume in the frontal and hippocampal regions of the brain, as well as levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF). BDNF support the growth, survival and differentiation of developing and mature neurons. The increase in neurotransmitters in the brain, specifically serotonin and norepinephrine, have in turn been found to boost information processing and mood.

Regular participation in aerobic exercise, especially within the zone of endurance, has therefore proven to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilise mood, and improve self-esteem and sleep .

Hence a stronger body that is more energised and conditioned does house a calmer, more focused and fit mind.

What exercise do I do?

Health professionals and researchers recommend a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise at least 5 days a week, or at least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity 3 days a week. Three areas of focus are: Aerobic Exercise, Resistance Training and Anaerobic Exercise.

Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise is any type of cardiovascular conditioning or “cardio.” Aerobic means: “relating to, involving, or requiring free oxygen”. During aerobic exercise your muscles have enough oxygen to produce the energy needed to perform. Exercises such as running, walking, cycling, and swimming increase your breathing and heart rate over a sustained period of time. When applied at a steady state for between 30-60 minutes, aerobic exercises increase oxygen and blood flow throughout the body. Benefits include weight loss, blood pressure control, increased stamina, strengthened immune system, a stronger heart, enhanced mood, and longevity.

Anaerobic Exercise

Anaerobic exercises involve quick bursts of energy and are performed at maximum effort for a short time. Anaerobic – without oxygen – exercise means oxygen demand is greater than oxygen supply and you can’t keep up with the energy your body is demanding. This leads to lactate production and eventually the cessation of exercise due to fatigue.  Examples include jumping, sprinting, or heavy explosive weight-lifting movements. Anaerobic exercises contribute to building muscle and losing weight because they harness stored energy sources to fuel exertion. Other benefits include strengthening bones, burning fat and increased stamina for daily activities. Depending on the intensity of working within this energy system, your body will  require longer periods of recovery during and after training. Here optimal nutrition is vital to ensure proper recovery. Build up a good aerobic base and strength foundation before increasing intensity and never exceed 10 percent of your weekly workout time at anaerobic heart rates.

Resistance Training

Resistance training falls under the anaerobic category and involves working against some type of force that “resists” movement. Weight-bearing exercises using dumbbells, barbells and kettlebells are well known within the realms of resistance. However, other forms of resistance include pushing or pulling your bodyweight through space, dragging or pushing sleds, running with parachutes, and even movement in water.

When you are starting out, compound, multi-joint movements such as squats, deadlifts, presses and pulls are important as they harness a range of muscles to build better strength and endurance. By targeting big muscle groups synergistically, compound movements may induce the production of important hormones such as testosterone, human growth hormone and other anabolic hormones.

Work within a low rep range (between 6-8) with a weight that is challenging in the last phase of the set. Aim for 4-5 sets of an exercise in order to get the best results, with around 2 to 3 minutes of rest between sets. For beginners it is always important to go lighter, build a base and first learn to apply movements through their full range.

Take-away points

Physical exercises, including aerobic and anaerobic varieties, are beneficial for both physical and mental fitness. Especially aerobic exercises, done within the zone of endurance, can have real benefits for sustained and improved cognitive function. This is due to the flow of blood to the brain, but also the mental focus it relies on to engage in. Exercise is therefore one component in a holistic approach to sustaining high-level performance without burning out.

If you are new to fitness, however, start with mild aerobic exercises such as walking or jogging, supplemented with two or three strength-training sessions a week. As you build a good foundation, you can add in anaerobic exercises such as high-intensity intervals (HIIT) and plyometrics. These exercises can help you gain muscle, burn fat, and increase your exercise stamina.

Disclaimer:  All opinions in this article are that of the author. They should by no means be constituted as professional medical or psychological advice. If you suffer from stress, chronic illness or health complications or are thinking of starting an exercise regimen, please seek advice from your medical practitioner first.

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