I read about a study recently which involved giving people simple cognitive problems to solve while peddling on a stationary bike. The study saw that most people unconsciously started peddling faster when presented with the problems to solve.

The effect is called arousal, a two-way relationship that sees brain activity increase in response to either motor based, or cognitive tasks. By “two way” what is meant is that performing motor tasks can improve the capacity to take on cognitive tasks, and vice versa, because either task requires similar regions of the brain to be ‘aroused’.

The interesting and, indeed, useful nature of arousal is its two-way relationship – so, while this study demonstrates that cognitive tasks can be used to enhance the performance of motor tasks, there is also scope to use motor tasks to enhance cognitive functioning.

Many people already utilise this relationship without being aware of the phenomenon specifically. For instance, when sitting at a desk for extended periods engaged in cognitive tasks at work, some of the more self-aware among us opt to take a walk or do some stretches as a form of break. These light motor tasks help revive brain chemistry when cognition takes a dip, which could be due to fatigue or even normal circadian rhythms, such as the tiredness that affects most of us at around 3 pm.

This is a very simple productivity trick which is so often overlooked. I have worked in many offices in my time where it is not uncommon for employees to sit at their desk almost all day, with the exception of toilet breaks and lunch breaks, which comprise of sitting (again) in the lunchroom for 45 minutes. I would hazard a guess that even the most brilliant and focused employee is only able to work at peak cognition for perhaps 60-90 minutes at a time. After that, productivity declines. People can work on beyond 90 minutes, of course, but speed and accuracy of work declines, and the ability to apply creativity and strategic thinking takes a hit as well.

There are numerous ways to easily enhance arousal, even within the most stifling of office cultures. Walking and talking on the telephone and collecting your prints from the most distant printer are simple ways you can boost cognition with movement. Listening to music through headphones and tapping your feet to the tune is another way… assuming it doesn’t annoy the people around you. Then there are sit-stand desks, and arranging standing or walking meetings, which might require a bit more of a shift in culture.

But the biggest benefits from arousal will come from initiatives that allow employees to ‘change the scenery’ on a regular basis – an allowance or indeed encouragement within the culture to get people to leave their desk to break up their work with movement. A ping pong table in the lunchroom is a great example. I once worked for a particularly high performing team which possessed a lot of energy. The ping pong table in our central meeting rooms became a place to meet with your colleagues and discuss ideas and solve problems while darting left and right after the ball. This is mirror image of the outcome observed in the study mentioned in the beginning, with the motor neural challenge of the game enhancing the effectiveness of the brain in dealing with the cognitive task at hand.

A more direct and prescriptive approach could include instructing employees in “Performance Preps” – a series of 2-3 minute routines developed by Warrior Wellness which increase heart rate and improve the mobility of desk bound employees. Performance Preps can be completed at the desk or elsewhere whenever an employee starts to feel ‘stale’.

 

If enhanced productivity isn’t compelling enough…

Sitting is very quickly becoming recognised as a long-term health hazard for office based employees. Some commentators label sedentary lifestyles as the biggest health risk this century, and I would tend to agree (but there are others). If the productivity benefits that come from utilising movement to enhance brain arousal are not enough to spur your workplace into action, perhaps the benefit to long term employee health and susceptibility to disease, is convincing.

 

Does your workplace lack arousal?

 

The study:

Altmann LJP, Stegemöller E, Hazamy AA, Wilson JP, Okun MS, et al. (2015) Unexpected Dual Task Benefits on Cycling in Parkinson Disease and Healthy Adults: A Neuro-Behavioral Model. PLOS ONE 10(5): e0125470. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0125470