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Exercise 2.0: Combining Exercise With Mental Imagery for Learning, Problem Solving And Performance Skills

We all know the value of exercise: physical fitness–check; weight loss–check; improved sleep–check; enhanced mood–check. But new research is showing that when exercise is combined with mental imagery it can function as a mental tool of sorts, a switch that both alters and activates brain processes that can enhance learning, problem solving, creative thinking, even performance skills. Need to memorize test information? Overcome writer’s block? Learn new musical repertoire? Ever procrastinate doing your taxes? Combining moderate exercise with mental imagery makes learning easier.

This new technique is called Cardio Imagery & Rehearsal and is being tested with performers and athletes in an on-going clinical study in San Francisco. The technique is based on three complementary findings of neuroscience research: applied neuroplasticity, the concept of transient hypofrontality and the role of mirror neurons in converting imagery into motor memory and learning.

Welcome to Exercise 2.0

Cardio (aerobic) exercise and weight training (anaerobic) both impact the brain on a number of levels, although cardio appears to offer more benefits for learning and skill acquisition. Besides increasing blood flow that shifts the brain into a higher gear, exercise triggers the release of three calming neurotransmitters, serotonin, norepinephrine and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) that allow the mind to settle into a more open, expansive state that enables creative thinking and learning. Athletes describe this as “runner’s high” because they feel happy and calm and may experience a brainstorm of new ideas.

Exercise also stimulates the production of a growth hormone called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) that has been described as “miracle grow” for neural cell growth. BDNF supports cell growth in the hippocampus, cortex andbasal forebrain, areas vital to memory, learning and critical thinking. Growing the brain by learning new mental and physical skills is called neuroplasticity. We always knew the brain was an evolutionary organ, but never considered that it was evolving every day when we learn something new.

Researchers are now testing whether neuroplasticity can be applied in a prescriptive way by using exercise to activate those brain functions that optimize learning. By selecting mental imagery that models new learning or even an activity that you are avoiding (such as doing your taxes), is it possible to “imprint” new neural circuits that support that learning?

The answer, according to emerging research, is yes.

Research Studies On Exercise and Learning

So called “train the brain” studies at neuroscience labs around the world are cementing the connection between exercise and a variety of cognitive benefits especially learning. One German study tested adult females’ ability to memorize the Polish equivalent of German words. Each group was subjected to different exercise conditions to test whether the timing of the exercise enhanced learning. The first group rode a stationary bicycle at a relaxed pace for 30 minutes while they listened to headphones that taught them the corresponding Polish words. The second group also rode the bicycle at the same pace for 30 minutes after listening to the lesson. The third group did no exercise but sat quietly for 30 minutes and then listened to the lesson. The results showed that those women who listened to the lesson while riding the bicycles performed best while those who exercised after listening were second best compared to the control group which did worse.

A similar study reported by researchers in Denmark focused on whether exercise could influence the development of physical or motor memories. Motor memory (commonly but inaccurately referred to as “muscle memory”) is important for athletes, dancers and musicians who must learn, remember and retrieve on demand highly sequenced physical movements. The results showed that the group that exercised after learning a computer tracing task performed better than the group exercising before the training. Again, the no exercise group did the worst.

What The Research Is Finding

Three conclusions can be drawn from these and similar studies. First, timing of the exercise may play a role in optimizing learning. Doing aerobic exercise before, during or after a learning situation always proved better than no exercise in a majority of studies. But there is less consensus about the actual timing of the exercise for optimal learning.

Second, moderate aerobic exercise is best when using mental imagery to install new learning. Light exercise appears to prime the brain to intake new information and stimulate encoding of the information. If exercise is too strenuous, adrenaline is released and the body and brain may become over-stimulated whereby blood is drawn away from the PFC (and working memory) to the motor parts of the brain. We all know how hard it is to think clearly when we push the limits of our physical exertion.

Finally, some of the benefits to learning and retrieval may not be realized for a day or two following the exercise because REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is essential to consolidate the memory in long-term memory thereby permitting retrieval on demand.

Moderate Exercise Balances Brain Hemispheres

Another explanation for the benefits of cardio exercise for planning, creative thinking and problem solving is a new theory by neuroscientist Arne Dietrich called transient hypofrontality. His research shows that when we aerobically exercise, there is a temporary (transient) reduction (hypo) in pre-frontal cortex (PFC) activation. As a result, attention is lowered and the impact of working memory on conscious thinking is reduced. This dampening of the PFC also allows the right brain to come into more balance with the left-brain.

Since the right brain supports insight, creativity, intuition and synthesis, new concepts and associations can emerge into consciousness when there is less dominance by the left hemisphere. Interestingly, synchronization between brain hemispheres–known as “brain coherence”–is a hallmark of the dream state when REM (rapid eye movement) occurs. Exercise is now seen as similar to meditation, prayer, yoga and other contemplative practices because it also stimulates intuition.

The Intriguing Role of “Mirror” Neurons

Another factor that contributes to the creative possibilities of exercise is the role of “mirror” neurons. Mirror neurons were first identified in the motor cortex of monkeys’ brains by Italian neuroscientists in the early 1990’s. In subsequent research with humans, these neurons become activated when we either perform an action ourselves or witness an action being performed by another person. In fact, witnessing an action triggers the brain to function almost as though it is performing the same action. Incredibly, one study found that watching bodybuilders lift weights also increased the muscle mass in the same muscle groups for those who simply watched the weight training. Mental rehearsal of performance skills–be it singing, playing sports or music or any type of physical skill–is almost as effective as actual practice once a certain skill level has been achieved.

How To Apply This Technique

So how can these findings be applied in daily life? Using Cardio Imagery & Rehearsal is quite simple. First, the type of aerobic exercise employed must be mentally unchallenging, allowing attention to be focused on learning the information or task. In contrast to playing a sport that requires a high level of concentration, running on a track, using a stationary bike or elliptical trainer allows you to adopt an internal focus that permits visualization of the mental learning.

Secondly, you must estimate a moderate intensity level of exercise (around 120 – 140 heart rate). If you are exercising at a gym, we can use a heart rate monitor or one built-into an elliptical trainer. For physically fit people, light jogging would approximate a heart rate of 120 – 140 over 20 minutes. Cardio exercise is preferred for learning applications because studies show that cardio produces more BDNF than weight training.

The main challenge is to exercise while holding in mind what you want to learn, memorize or rehearse. Holding the mental contents in mind is like recalling a visual memory, or imagining a behavioral routine or how you want to feel when giving a speech or playing music. This reflects a full mind-body focus with all sensory channels (visual, aural, touch, body sensations and positioning) integrated into the mental script. Try to feel how you want your body to move and respond. Make sure to link up your preferred mental state with the corresponding physical sensations tied to the activity. This process should be repeated for approximately 15 – 30 minutes per day for several days to get the best results.

To use this application for reduction of procrastination, simply imagine doing the very activity that you are avoiding. In the case of tax preparation, identify each step in the process and imagine doing them in sequence. Again, rehearse this imagery for 30 minutes. Make sure to emphasize the first step in the process because procrastination is really anticipatory anxiety that is “front-loaded”. Once you push through the initial resistance to starting, it gets much easier. Sometimes the deeper reasons why you are avoiding may emerge into consciousness as you exercise.

Everyone has the potential to self-direct his or her brain to optimize learning, memorization and skill acquisition. Leveraging the brain’s natural capacities to perform at a higher level may be the ultimate reason to exercise.