Many people assume that doing physical exercise makes your body function better, and doing cognitive exercise makes your brain function better. The misconception lies in the separation of the two entities, body and brain, as independent parts of a loosely connected whole.
But let’s face it; you can’t have one without the other. The brain tells the body what to do, the body tells the brain how it’s doing. Purposeful movement is not just a function of the sensory motor cortex- it’s a product of an integrated lightning storm of cerebral activity generated from feedback provided by the body.
Typical physical exercises require little to no higher cognitive processes. In fact, we try to tune out our thoughts and simply focus on basic motor movements. We even go so far as to try to drown out “thinking” with loud music and repetitive, highly familiar cardio and strengthening exercises that reduce our cognitive demands to that of a hamster on a wheel.
Similarly, cognitive activities like computerized brain games, reading, and crossword puzzles are performed primarily in a sedentary setting where there is little demand for physical exertion. We slow down movement and remove other sensory distractions to allow for a higher degree of concentration and thought processing. Why do we do this?
The “I can’t walk and chew gum at the same time” cliché is more than a humorous, self-deprecating dig on “clumsy” motor coordination. It’s a nod toward attention and sensory processing skills that are challenged during dual-task performance that require more cognitive exertion than a single task.
A healthy brain can process information on the move and deliver consistent, reliable motor commands along the way. And a healthy body responds accordingly, generating large, coordinated movements in unison with subtle postural and counter-balance measures to keep the rest of the body stable.
Our culture tends to separate our moving brain from our thinking brain. We treat fitness as a function of the body and only engage the brain for purposes of motor memory, balance, and position changes. What many fitness programs fail to consider is the higher-level brain processes- the declarative, thought-generating, problem solving aspects of the brain that make us uniquely human. In order to maximize both brain and body health (and to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time) higher level cognitive functions need to be embedded in fitness activities.
Because I always like to give a nod to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, their physical and cognitive “exercises” were frequently one in the same. Hunting, hiking, and climbing- while problem solving environmental barriers and avoiding predators- made for some pretty integrated activity. #humanhabitat