Toolbox: Exercise and Improving Mental Performance
Do you want to upgrade your brain as well as your body? Emerging evidence suggests that riding your bike may be a potent cognitive performance enhancer. Does cycling make you smarter?
Cycling has a long and chequered history with performance enhancement, perhaps related to the fact that the quantifiable nature of the sport makes it relatively easy to measure improvements and figure out what works. Cycling performance, in its most basic form, can be defined by how hard you can push on the pedals, for how long.
This same quantifiable nature makes cycling a popular form of exercise in research environments. Scientists can precisely control the intensity of an effort so all participants in a study receive a similar exercise ‘dose’, for example. It also makes it relatively easy to see how much a subject has improved in response to an intervention.
The brain influences the body’s performance
Interest has grown in the interaction between the brain, the body and sports performance. Researchers have also begun to experiment with neuromodulatory techniques; methods designed to alter nerve activity in specific brain regions, such as transcranial direct current stimulation’ (tDCS); in the context of sports performance.
tDCS looks like something out of a science fiction movie. Researchers stick electrodes to a subject’s scalp in a pattern corresponding with the brain regions they are attempting to stimulate. Typically, a ‘dose’ of tDCS is provided by a relatively small ‘anodal’ electrical current of 1-2 mA, delivered over 20-30 minutes (1). The intervention is designed to increase the ‘excitability’ of neurons in specific brain regions and a range of studies have demonstrated effects on both cognitive and physical performance.
Our central nervous system plays an important role in how we respond to physical exertion. In 2015, a group of scientists set out to explore the effects of a technique called tDCS on cycling performance (2). After a taking part in an incremental test to establish their peak power, 11 subjects returned to the laboratory to complete three trials designed to measure the effects of tDCS on their time to exhaustion while riding at 80% of peak power. The researchers administered 13 minutes of anodal stimulation, placing electrodes in a pattern devised stimulate the primary motor cortex. Evidence suggests that this brain region works in association with other areas of the brain to plan and execute movements, such as pedalling a bike. When the subject’s received the 13 minutes of stimulation before the test, their time to exhaustion significantly increased.
(Costa et al., 2015)
The body influences the brain’s performance
It’s clear that the function of the brain can have a powerful influence on the performance of the body. This can be achieved with techniques ranging from the complexity of electrical stimulation, to the simplicity of positive ‘self-talk’. However, it seems that the relationship works both ways: the function of the body can have a potent influence on brain performance, and engaging in physical activity may be one of the most effective forms of cognitive enhancement.
Physical exercise appears to have a particularly strong influence on our ‘executive-control processes’ (3). These processes include selective attention, which enables us to allocate our cognitive resources appropriately, working memory capacity, which we use to hold and process information and response inhibition, which facilitates our capability to suppress actions that are no longer required, enabling us to adapt our behaviour to suit our goals (4). Studies using electroencephalogram (EEG), which monitor the brain during tasks by measuring the electrical activity of the brain, have demonstrated that higher fitness is also associated with increased cognitive flexibility, which is associated with our ability to switch between tasks and consider multiple concepts (5).
The majority of the readers of this article will not be professional athletes. It’s likely that you use your brain to make a living, more than your body. In this case, we should perhaps be more interested in interventions which offer the potential to ‘upgrade’ our paid work performance.
Regular aerobic exercise, such as riding your bike, can provide a simple way for healthy people to enhance their cognitive function. This may offer significant benefits in life and work. Perhaps new tasks become possible. Maybe you can achieve the same level of performance in your work, but it could feel easier, increasing the ‘margin’ you have available.
Technology vs Exercise as Upgrade Paths?
Increasing numbers of companies are now offering technologies claiming to offer cognitive performance enhancement. It’s possible to buy consumer tDCS devices and you can download a wide range of apps promoting their potential upgrade your brain, but are they worth it?
Based on conversations with experts in the field, and the studies I have read so far, my personal view is that these technologies hold promise, but more research is required. Across age-groups, in healthy populations, the strongest evidence for cognitive performance enhancement is still found in physical activity. However, tDCS, has proven to offer the potential to significantly improve memory performance, in particular. For those of us who like the idea of boosting our brain without working up a sweat, this may be an attractive proposition.
But which is more effective: physical activity, or technology? A recently published study compared the long-term memory enhancement potential of physical activity relative to tDCS (6).
The investigators applied specific tDCS and physical exercise protocols that have been shown to be effective in improvement of long-term memory. 24 participants took part. During three sessions, each held under a different condition, the participants were asked to memorise a set of images, which they would be required to recall later. The results of the recognition task would demonstrate any changes in long-term memory performance.
tDCS has been demonstrated to be most effective when used during a memorisation task, where physical exercise seems to be more effective when applied following the task. Consequently, the researchers designed the study to provide the best opportunity for the interventions to be effective.
The three conditions in the study were as follows:
1) Cycling: Participants completed the image memorisation phase of the task and then cycled for 30 min at moderate intensity on an exercise bike, before completing the recognition phase.
2) tDCS: Participants experienced 15 minutes of ‘active’ tDCS stimulation (1.5mA anodal) during the memorisation task, then completed the recognition phase.
3) ‘Sham’: no meaningful stimulation was provided during the memorisation task, to act as a placebo control.
Both physical exercise and active stimulation with tDCS was associated with significant improvements in the long-term memory performance of the participants, compared to the sham stimulation. However, the study demonstrated that the moderate intensity cycling led to a stronger improvement than the active tDCS.
30 min of physical exercise can significantly improve long-term memory performance.
(Javadi & Ilfram, 2017)
As we continue to understand more about the brain and the body, I’m fascinated by the potential to enhance our cognitive performance. It’s pleasing to think that riding my bike is benefiting my brain as well as my body, but there may be a deeper significance.
I work with a company called Hintsa Performance as Head of Science & Innovation. Part of my role is to consider the trends that are shaping our life and work, and how this may have an influence on human performance. Economic disruptions such as delayed retirement age, and the high probability that jobs involving routine tasks will be replaced, in whole or in part, by automation, mean that the employee of the future is likely to be an aging ‘knowledge worker’ – someone who ‘thinks for a living’. We are likely to live and work for longer than ever before.
The ‘workforce of tomorrow’ will require us to maximise ‘healthspan’; maintaining health and physical function while compressing ill health into as short a period as possible. Remaining human roles are likely to emphasise sophisticated and effective cognitive functioning, compelling us to enhance and maintain our cognitive function for as long as possible. I’m delighted that the evidence suggests that I can make a contribution to achieving this by riding my bike!
1) Batsikadze, G., Moliadze, V., Paulus, W., Kuo, M.F, Nitsche, M.A. (2013) Partially non-linear stimulation intensity-dependent effects of direct current stimulation on motor cortex excitability in humans. The Journal of Physiology 591(7) p. 1987–2000
2) Vitor-Costa, M., Okuno, N.M., Bortolotti, H., Bertollo, M., Boggio, P.S., Fregni, F., Altimari, L.R. (2015) Improving Cycling Performance: Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation Increases Time to Exhaustion in Cycling. PLoS One. 10(12) e0144916
3) Colcombe, S. & Kramer. A.F. (2003) Fitness effects on the cognitive function of older adults: a meta-analytic study. Psychological Science. 14 (2) p.125-130
4) Guiney H. & Machado, L. (2013) Benefits of regular aerobic exercise for executive functioning in healthy populations. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. 20(1) p. 73-86
5) Themanson, J.R., Pontifex, M.B. & Hillman, C.H. (2008) Fitness and action monitoring: evidence for improved cognitive flexibility in young adults. Neuroscience. 157(2) p.319–328
6) Javadi, A. & Ifram, F. (2017) Physical exercise improves long-term memory more than transcranial direct current stimulation. Clinical Neurophysiology 128 (3) e.159
James Hewitt is Sports Scientist and Performance Coach with HINTSA Performance based in Geneva, Switzerland. In a previous life he was an Elite racer but now focusses on avoiding caffeine overdose and helping other people achieve their goals. You can contact James through twitter @jamesphewitt and find out more at his website www.jameshewitt.net