I don’t know about you, but I can often identify with Dory, the famously forgetful fish in “Finding Nemo” and “Finding Dory.” I try to focus, get distracted and spend a lot of time not doing the things I want to get accomplished. Like Dory, I swim around in a circle, and wow there’s the castle again.
It appears that this isn’t me alone. According to a study conducted by Microsoft Corporation in 2012 the average attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to 8 seconds. That is shorter than our friend the goldfish (reported to be 9 seconds). So, I guess Dory has us beat.
How do we attempt to fix our focus issues? We are often prompted do do things like reduce distractions, set timers, turn off alerts on our devices, but this only covers the inputs. What if we could hack the system? How can we change our brain to enable more focus? Is the answer the “Limitless pill,” or is there something better?
The Role of Exercise, and Complex Movement.
Exercise is really the master hack to enable you to focus, but not just any exercise. In his book “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” John Ratey goes into a lot of detail on how exercise in general improves brain function, and consequently our ability to focus and concentrate. There are essentially 3 different ways that gym time helps brain gains: creation of BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor), activating large areas of the brain, and increased neurotransmitter secretion.
When we exercise our brain creates BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor). There is a lot of emerging research on BDNF and how aerobic exercise is integral in creating it. BDNF plays an important role in neuronal survival and growth, it also serves as a neurotransmitter modulator, and participates in neuronal plasticity, which is essential for learning and memory. Most of the studies with BDNF have been with aerobic exercise, but it is also beginning to look like there are links to resistance training as well, especially when rest times between sets are limited.
Much of the research around concentration and focus has been associated with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). One of the things we have learned from studying folks with ADD/ADHD is that exercise that requires complex movement in the midst of heavy exertion is more effective at helping people gain the ability to concentrate and stay on task longer than simple aerobic exercise alone. MRI studies have shown that complex and technical movements activate large areas of the brain including balance, timing, sequencing, fine motor adjustments, focus and concentration.
Finally complex high intensity exercise increases the amount of the neurotransmitters nor-epinephrine and dopamine. These neurotransmitters are essential to modulate the signals that are required for paying attention. These are also the feel good chemicals that give you that “afterglow” when you finish a tough workout or event. The immediate big effects of this increase seems to be limited to about 2 hours post workout, however some studies show that the long term effects can be present for in excess of 12 hours.
So what kind exercise is the answer? Dr. Ratey suggests daily exercise that is aerobic, has vigorous components, and includes some degree of complexity is exactly what your brain needs. Including things like gymnastics, complex movements (dynamic lifts, throwing, etc) engage every element of your attention system which not only provides the stimulus we are looking for it also makes it easier to stick to the program. The result is not only physical gains, but gains in mental acuity, the ability to concentrate and stay on task.
I have seen this demonstrated repeatedly in the gym in both children and adults. Exercise that is daily, complex, and has elements of both aerobic and threshold training is essential to increase focus, productivity and feelings of well being.
Three ways you can incorporate this into your workouts to help your ability to focus:
- If you aren’t exercising every day. Start. No less than 30 minutes a day. The science is undisputed. You will easily gain the time back in focus and productivity. Every. Single. Day.
- Is your exercise routine boring? (ie the treadmill/bike or similar) If so you need to add complexity. This can be in the form of sport, games, technical lifts, gymnastics, etc. The key is to add elements of speed, coordination, balance and accuracy. This will ensure you are engaging many different areas of the brain, and keep you engaged for the long haul.
- Is your exercise always in the “Fat burning zone” – (ie low intensity, slow, steady state- LISS). If so, then you need to add more vigorous activity. Studies suggest women going to at least 65-75%, with men and boys going higher. It is important to get your heart rate up around 75%+ for longer periods. Things like intervals, high intensity interval training, sprints, and weighted movement will help.
Finally, if you want to save time, effort and gain all of these benefits we can help individually, in a small group or as a part of one of our group classes. Call or click and set up a no-sweat consultation and let us get you started.