A powerful variable of exercise programming is intensity. Usually it is increased or decreased based upon how hard one is exercising. It can be quantified aerobically by percentage of heart rate max (HRmax) or in a strength-based setting by percentage of 1-rep max when lifting weights. There is value to monitoring the level of intensity when it comes to seeking improvements in aerobic or anaerobic performance.
Another less-commonly considered variable of intensity is movement complexity. Having to think and plan and coordinate a movement task is a different type of challenge. Going for a ten-minute run at an intensity of 50% HRmax is different from performing a dance routine that produces the same heart rate response. While the cost to the aerobic system would be similar, hence the same heart rate, dancing could be considered more intense because of the degree of complexity associated with the motor planning.
Health outcomes such as working memory, ability to focus, and problem-solving skills have been shown to improve following exercise of any kind, but more importantly, those outcomes improve more when the exercise involved a measure of motor complexity where the movement tasks were complicated. Performing movement tasks which require mental focus and timing and coordination can promote positive adaptations to brain health. Examples of motor exercise training involve activities such as juggling or performing choreography or balancing drills.
Researchers have found exercise-associated improvements in cognitive tasks both acutely and chronically. In 2008, results were presented from one team that showed higher performance from children in concentration and attention tasks following a bout of complex exercise compared to completion of an exercise bout that lacked any specific coordinative demands, e.g., simple running.
The same team of researchers later went on to complete a 10-week study that involved three exercise sessions per week of 45 minutes. A control group of children participated in assisted homework sessions. A second group exercised at 60-70 percent HRmax performing running-based activities without much complication while the third group performed motor tasks involving games that challenged balance, hand-eye coordination, and reaction time. The third group’s cardiovascular intensity was less (55-65 percent HRmax) but they performed the best on a test of working memory and cognitive performance.
While these studies were done on children, neuroplasticity, the ability for the brain to rewire itself and learn new things, can happen throughout all of life. If we truly wish for our children to be bright and creative and resourceful, we must make movement-based play and exercise as important to their scholastic experience as math or reading or science. As adults, if we wish to perform with our peak mental faculties in place, exercise is of extreme importance.
If you find your workouts becoming routine and boring, this is all the more reason to switch it up. Even the simple idea of changing your footprint inside of a squat set (making sure the weight goes down when introducing more movement variety) will add an element of variability and mental focus that will elicit benefits from both your soft tissue and your grey matter. Consider bringing juggling balls to the gym to mix in with your sets of bench press or sign up for a dance class and learn something new. Increase your exercise intensity by increasing the complexity and work on your brain health as you work on your body health.
I specialize in a concept called Loaded Movement Training which, by design, involves variability, body-wide timing, rhythm, and coordination. The ideal tool for this type of training is a piece of equipment called ViPRTM. Find out more by visiting www.viprfit.com, or my by visiting my website, www.kbmoveforlife.com.
Koutsandreou, F., Wegner, M., and Budde, H., Active Voice: Exercises that Emphasize Motor Skill Factors are Better for Improving Cognition in Children. Sports Medicine Bulletin-Retrieved Sept 23, 2016