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Multitasking Can Help Make Your Workout More Effective

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It’s no secret that a good distraction, like listening to music on a treadmill or reading on a stationary bike, can make exercise more bearable. But, it turns out that multitasking also has the power to boost your performance.

In a study from the University of Florida, adults who were asked to complete mental tasks while pedaling on stationary bikes were shown to move faster with no negative impact on their cognitive performance. Tasks ranged in difficulty from saying “go” when a blue star appeared on a screen to reciting increasingly long lists of numbers in the the reverse order of how they were presented. Cycling speeds increased by 25 percent when participants were given the simplest tasks, and became gradually slower as the problems became more difficult. But even when faced with the hardest task, cyclists were just as fast as they had been with no distraction at all.

These findings may come as no surprise to experienced fitness junkies, but for the researchers it was a revelation. Past studies on the effects of multitasking almost always showed that it leads to a decrease in performance all around, and it now it looks like exercise is the major exception to that rule. 

The study was originally conducted to show the negative impact of multitasking in patients with Parkinson’s disease. Researchers looked at 28 participants with the neurodegenerative disorder and 20 healthy older adults. While the Parkison’s patients didn’t speed up to the same degree as the control group and were slower overall, scientists didn’t see the decrease in performance that they had been expecting.

Researchers suspect that one factor behind the results is the combined arousal the participants experienced from exercising and anticipating a difficult cognitive task. Arousal boosts the brain’s speed and efficiency, improving both motor and cognitive performance. The scientists behind the study plan to look into this topic further and extend their research to other types of exercise, but for now it looks like there's no harm in playing games on your smartphone at the gym.

[h/t: EurekAlert]

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Smiling Could Improve Your Athletic Performance—But Your Grins Can't Be Fake
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Athletes obviously enjoy breaking a sweat, but it’s not often that you’ll see one break into a smile while in the throes of competition. Yet that’s exactly what many coaches instruct them to do: Grinning mid-race has been said to relax muscles and boost physical performance. Recently, a group of researchers put this theory to the test, according to The New York Times. Their findings were published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise.

Researchers from Ulster University in Northern Ireland and Swansea University in Wales instructed a group of 24 non-professional runners—both men and women—to shift between smiles and scowls while running on a treadmill. The volunteers were told that the experiment would measure how certain factors affected the amount of oxygen they used while jogging at various running speeds.

For the experiment’s first stage, runners wore face masks that measured their breathing. As they exercised until fatigue, researchers asked them to rate how they felt and report their coping strategies—for example, whether were they ignoring their pain or embracing it.

The study’s second segment required volunteers to engage in four individual runs, each lasting for six minutes. Mid-run, they were told to smile both genuinely and continuously, to scowl, to relax their torsos using a visualization technique, or to simply fall back on their usual endurance mindsets.

Smiles didn’t always improve runners’ performances. A few subjects picked up the pace while grimacing, possibly because these “game faces” made them ultra-determined to beat their personal records. But overall, runners with smiles were nearly 3 percent more efficient than normal. While seemingly insignificant, this difference is large enough to affect someone’s race performance, experts say.

Keeping in mind the study’s small size, the authors conclude that exercising while smiling might reduce muscular tension and thus amp up performance. But in order to gain this positive effect, athletes must beam genuinely. Fake smiles, like the kind you’ll see in school pictures, don’t work as many facial muscles, and therefore result in lower levels of relaxation.

Since it’s hard for anyone (let alone a focused athlete) to maintain an authentic smile during prolonged periods of strenuous activity, scientists suggest smiling near a race’s end, in 30-second intervals.

[h/t The New York Times]

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Marathon Running Won't Undo Poor Lifestyle Choices, Study Suggests
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Even marathon participants can't outrun an unhealthy lifestyle, according to a new study highlighted by The New York Times.

For years, expert opinion has been mixed on whether long-distance running helps or hurts hearts. In the 1970s, research suggested that marathon running and a heart-healthy diet would completely prevent atherosclerosis (a buildup of harmful plaque in the arteries). But since high-profile runners have died of heart attacks, scientists in the 1980s began to worry that running might actually harm the vital organ. Compounding this fear in recent years were studies suggesting that male endurance athletes exhibited more signs of heart scarring or plaques than their less-active counterparts.

Experts don't have a verdict quite yet, but researchers from the University of Minnesota and Stanford and their colleagues have some good news—running doesn't seem to harm athletes' hearts, but it's also not a panacea for heart disease. They figured this out by asking 50 longtime marathon runners, all male, with an average age of 59, to fill out questionnaires about their training, health history, and habits, and then examining them for signs of atherosclerosis.

Only 16 of the runners ended up having no plaque in their arteries, and the rest exhibited slight, moderate, or worrisome amounts. The men who had unhealthy hearts also had a history of smoking and high cholesterol. A grueling training regime seemed to have no effect on these levels.

Bottom line? Marathon running won't hurt your heart, but it's not a magic bullet for poor lifestyle choices.

[h/t The New York Times]

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