Why you should care
Because who doesn’t want the benefits of exercise without the effort?
Ever try to rub your belly and pat your head at the same time? Look a little spastic doing it? Yeah, that’s because we suck at multitasking. Not only that, but science loves to rub its vast evidence in our face of the so-called fact that multitasking is doing all kinds of deleterious crap to our brains. Well, hold on a minute. A new study shows:
Multitasking might improve your fitness regimen.
In particular, by occupying your mind while exercising, you might actually work out harder. What’s more, you might not even realize you’re pushing yourself more. “If you look up multitasking, you’ll find lots of articles about how bad it is,” lead author Lori Altmann says. “We might be the first showing that’s not always true.”
Starting with the common belief that when people try to perform two tasks at once one or both typically deteriorate, University of Florida researchers wanted to test whether that tendency is exaggerated in those whose minds have dramatically degenerated — Parkinson’s patients. In their study, funded by the National Institute of Aging, they had two groups, one with the disease and the other healthy, complete a series of increasingly complex brain games while cycling on a stationary bike. You’d think that an increased heart rate, sweating and the basic focus needed to pedal would compromise the ability to think. To the researchers’ surprise, the healthy adults pedaled 25 percent faster while they worked on the easiest tests. Parkinson’s patients upped their output by 17 percent.
The prospect of being able to work out your body and brain at the same time … just wait until Silicon Valley hears about this. There are some caveats, though. The hardest tasks had no impact, good or bad. And it’s unclear whether these benefits will carry over to other types of exercise, like jogging and using the elliptical, which on their own take more concentration. “I don’t know that we would see the same effect in other forms of exercise,” says Prue Plummer, an assistant physical therapy professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The stationary bike, on the other hand, requires few cognitive resources — you don’t have to think on a bike the way you would in a Tough Mudder race — making it an ideal candidate for this experiment.
As for the type of mental distraction that works best, Altmann says something on par with whack-a-mole is ideal. “We think the key is that the cognitive tasks have to be easy, fast-paced and engaging,” she says. It remains to be seen whether you have to keep upping the difficulty or switching tasks to keep the brain stimulated. No doubt there are still lots of questions to be answered. But Altmann says she already has meetings lined up with eager entrepreneurs, so we can anticipate that scientists and techies alike will be racing to rewrite the story on multitasking.