When British freestyle unicycle champion (2010-2013) Sam Goodburn juggles five pins and rides his unicycle across a tightrope, you know you’re seeing multitasking at its highest level. But for more down-to-earth sorts (like us) the idea of riding even a stationary bike and juggling or counting backward seems likely to slow us down so that neither pedaling nor counting would proceed very efficiently.
But that’s not always what happens, and it even surprised researchers at the University of Florida who asked older folks to do cognitive tasks such as repeating lists of numbers in reverse order while riding a stationary bike. The scientists assumed that doing two things at once would impair both functions. But they found that stationary bicycle speeds actually increased when people were given simple tasks to do while pedaling.
True, as the brain games got tougher, the volunteers slowed down.
The double demand did start to impinge on the amount of attention they could give each task. But the senior pedalers still were going faster than before they started the cognitive exercise. How is that possible? Researchers speculate that the brain’s reward system (dopamine) became activated when dual tasks were accomplished. That pleasure spurred folks on to do more. We’ve known that exercise improves cognitive ability, but does this suggest that cognitive activity can improve exercise?
One note of caution: The findings don’t mean that texting and driving or biking with headphones is a smart or safe move, ever! The stationary-bike study was done in a controlled environment, where it was nearly impossible to get injured.
© 2015 Michael Roizen, M.D. and Mehmet Oz, M.D.
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.