This Simple Trick Could Make Your Tough Workouts Seem Easier

Researchers find that easy multi-tasking may help increase exercise performance

We’ve all been there before: that point during an intense workout where you start to back off a bit. You’re brain starts to convince you that you don't have any more gas left in the tank and you’re just about ready to call it quits.

Sometimes we find the steam to press on until the end, but other times we let that negative voice in our head get the best of us and we throw in the towel.

Next time you find yourself faced with this situation, try putting your brain to work if you want to stick it out to the end.

And no, that doesn’t mean you need to start chanting motivating mantras or desperately trying to convince yourself that you can survive. Instead, new research suggests, engage your brain with “easy cognitive tasks.”

A recent study from the University of Florida found that the cycling speed of participants increased when they performed simple cognitive tasks, such as saying the word "go" when they saw a blue star.

The study examined 20 healthy older adults with an average age of 73 and 29 participants with Parkinson’s disease whose average age was 66. Participants were presented with 12 cognitive tests that increased in difficulty, performed once while sitting in a quiet room and again while they were cycling. The most difficult task involved reciting lists of numbers in reverse order.

The scientists found that participants’ cycling speed increased while performing the tasks, with the greatest increases in speed documented during the six easiest tasks.

"As participants were doing the easy tasks, they were really going to town on the bikes, and they didn't even realize it," said study author Lori Altmann, an associate professor of speech, language and hearing sciences at the College of Public Health and Health Professions. "It was as if the cognitive tasks took their minds off the fact that they were pedaling."

The original intent of the study was to determine how much “dual task performance” (or multi-tasking) suffers in patients with Parkinson’s.

Altmann said they hypothesized that multi-tasking would lead to a decline in both cognitive and physical performance.

"Every dual-task study that I'm aware of shows when people are doing two things at once they get worse," she explained. "Everybody has experienced walking somewhere in a hurry when the person in front of them pulls out a phone, and that person just slows to a crawl. Frankly, that's what we were expecting."

Of course, these findings are limited to a small, distinct population and further research is needed to determine what sort of response a more general population might produce.

What the results suggest, though, is that exercisers may benefit from the “cognitive arousal” that occurs when anticipating a challenging task.

“What arousal does, is give you more attention to focus on a task," Altmann said. "When the tasks were really easy, we saw the effect of that attention as people cycled very fast. As the cognitive tasks got harder, they started impinging on the amount of attention available to perform both tasks, so participants didn't cycle quite so fast."

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