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.