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Read Time 12 min

Our Brains Need Exercise Too

When brain fog has you frustrated, try exercising both your body and mind by incorporating cognitive training during your next workout.

It’s common for people living with Parkinson’s disease to experience challenges with their cognition, which is the act of mental processing. Thinking, speaking, understanding, learning, remembering, problem solving—all of these brain activities fall under the cognition umbrella.

Approximately 30% of people living with Parkinson’s disease report problems with cognition, specifically their memory and thinking ability. It’s also been reported that cognitive impairment can have just as much of an impact on quality of life as motor symptoms like freezing or bradykinesia.

What can be done to improve motor symptoms and cognition? The answer is exercise combined with cognitive training.

The medical community often talks about the benefits of exercise on the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. But it should also be noted that there are cognitive improvements that occur with a consistent workout routine.

Working out increases blood flow to the brain and strengthens brain connections. When you learn a new exercise skill such as tai chi, boxing or yoga, it not only improves how you move, but how you think as well.

Finding new ways to exercise—as well as pushing yourself to improve at the ones you already know—helps your neurons grow new connections. Before you know it, you’ve learned a new skill and improved your cognition.

On the other side of the coin, cognitive training has been proven to improve common motor symptoms for Parkinson’s disease, including freezing and bradykinesia.

Going off previous research that had identified a connection between freezing of gait and impaired attention and cognitive control, Australian researchers conducted a 2018 study where they split participants with Parkinson’s into two groups.

The group asked to complete a physical activity (walking) while also completing a cognitive task (naming the months backwards) ultimately saw improvements in cognitive function, gait and experienced fewer freezing episodes compared to the group that completed a physical activity without a cognitive task.

Exercise your body and your brain

Now that we know the life-changing benefits of combining cognitive tasks with exercise, here are some examples you can try at home.

1. Wise Walking

Set the treadmill to a walking pace or go for a walk around the neighborhood. As you’re walking forward, count backwards. Need a bigger challenge? Count backwards by 7s. As you’re walking forward say the alphabet backwards or name the days of the weeks or months backwards. Need an even bigger challenge? Turn that walk into a jog while completing those same cognitive tasks. Do you have a walking or jogging buddy with you today? Try stumping each other with trivia questions while you exercise together.

2. Around the Clock

Give the expression “turn back the clock” new meaning with this workout that aims to slow down disease progression. Create an imaginary circle in the room and think of it as a giant clock. Going in a clockwise motion, begin doing lunges around the clock. Say the name of the clock numbers as you’re lunging around the clock. Need a bigger challenge? Try going counterclockwise, starting with 12 and going through the numbers backwards. Need an even bigger challenge? Turn those lunges into burpees.

3. Simon Says

If this childhood game rings a bell, you just improved your cognition by remembering. Good job! For those who don’t, one person is designated “Simon,” while the others are the players. Standing in front of the group, Simon gives a command. However, the players must only obey commands that begin with the words “Simon Says.” If Simon says, “Simon says do a pushup,” the players must do a pushup. If Simon says, “Do a pushup” but didn’t say Simon says first, the players who did pushups are disqualified. PS: There are no limits to commands Simon can use: pushups, sit-ups, lunges, burpees, etc.

4. Red Light, Green Light

Fight back against freezing episodes with another childhood classic. The person who is “It” stands in front with their back turned. The other players stand in a horizontal line with several feet between them and “It.” When “It” calls “Green Light,” the other players move toward them until “It” spins around, calling “Red Light.” When they hear the red-light command, the other players must freeze on the spot. When “It” turns back around giving the green-light command, the players begin moving again. Whoever reaches “It” first wins and becomes the new “It.”

5. Go or No Go

In this game, participants respond to a “go” command but make no response to a “no-go” command. Let’s say you’re kickboxing. When the trainer says “Right hand – go” you punch with your right hand. When they say, “Right hand – no go” you do not throw a punch. The trainer can do the same thing with kicks by commanding “left foot – go” or “left foot – no go.” Remembering which hand to punch, which foot to kick, and when not to punch or kick as the trainer speeds up their commands is tricky for anyone, so don’t be hard on yourself if you fall out of sync.

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