How Your Brain Can Help (or Hinder!) Your Workout
The link between physical activity and mental acuity has been well studied and is typically one-sided. The consensus is that while short exercise sessions can make us sharper, physically demanding exercise can leave us too tired to think clearly afterward. But can the reverse be true? Can mental activity affect physical activity?
That’s what researchers from the University of Kent and the French Institute of Health and Medical Research wanted to find out, and according to them the answer is yes and no.
Ten healthy men were asked to complete two 90-minute mental tasks on separate days. The control task was easy and the men watched the documentary “Earth.” The second task was more challenging, requiring the men to play a word game that’s been shown to be mentally exhausting. After each task the men exercised their leg for as long as they could (an endurance test) and told researchers how they were feeling. Their leg’s maximum output (strength) was also tested.
What’d they find?
After the men completed the harder mental task they felt more tired and they didn’t last as long in the endurance test as did they after the easier task. But interestingly, their maximum muscle strength remained the same after both mental activities, meaning they weren’t worn out physically speaking.
Perception is everything
Spinning our brain’s wheels all day isn’t the same as spinning on our bike, yet our brain can trick us into feeling physically exhausted when we’re mentally tapped out. What’s worse is that these crossed wires can actually impact our exercise routine by making us more likely to cut our run short or skip the last set of reps even if our muscles are fresh and ready to go.
It’s mind over matter
Remember that even after a hectic workday or marathon study session, our muscles are still itching to be exercised. Honor your body’s strength by pushing through any mental blocks and finishing strong. And if you know you’re susceptible to the whole, “I’m too tired from working hard all day to hit the gym,” line of thinking, avoid the trap by exercising first thing in the morning before anything (real or perceived) can deter you.
*About the author: Caryn Huneke is a Dietetic Intern and graduate student in the Nutrition Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University.