How does exercise intensity influence cognitive control?
In a new experimental study (Peruyero et al., 2017), participants were assigned to one of three groups: no exercise, light-intensity exercise, or high-intensity exercise. Their inhibitory control was tested before and after the workout. The results: People who had just exercised intensely did better at the cognitive test than those who had exercised lightly, while those who had not exercised at all performed the worst.
This drives yet another nail into the coffin of the willpower depletion theory. Doing things that are hard does not deplete willpower, but strengthens our will! And even though there is more to willpower than Stroop-tested inhibitory cognitive control, it is a major executive function and thus a critical self-control skill.
Still, we must be intelligent about our training and not destroy ourselves. The exercise used in the study was a 30-minute Zumba workout, which I doubt is as exhausting as a powerlifting, kickboxing, or grappling session. And while intense exercise can well boost cognitive performance, another study (Schmit et al., 2015) found that this effect reverses near exhaustion.
To optimize our willpower, we may be well-advised to work out hard for a relatively short period. Personally, I have learned that keeping my weightlifting sessions under 45 minutes makes me much more energetic and focused during the rest of the day—so much more than the 60-90-minute workouts I did when I was younger. And when I train jiu-jitsu, which can be severely fatiguing, I simply meditate and go to sleep afterwards.
The other problem I see with using exercise and particularly strength workouts for boosting willpower is that most people are caffeine addicts. Intense, aggressive workouts come easy when the body is supercharged with stimulants (coffee, energy drink, caffeine pill, or pre-workout booster). But the drug-fueled power of will soon collapses into a drug-induced weakness. Energy highs never come for free; they are always borrowed from the future. No wonder that those animals overflowing with energy in the gym often seem tried and weak when you meet them outside.
I was like that myself until I stopped fueling my workouts with caffeine. Now I am convinced that the best way to maximize my willpower throughout the day is to use my natural energy levels to unleash brute bursts of morning aggression at the gym without overextending the time I spend there and without borrowing energy from the afternoon.
Schmit C, Davranche K, Easthope CS, Colson SS, Brisswalter J, Radel R (2015). Pushing to the limits: the dynamics of cognitive control during exhausting exercise. Neuropsychologia 68, pp. 71-81, doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2015.01.006.
Peruyero F, Zapata J, Pastor D, Cervelló E (2017). The Acute Effects of Exercise Intensity on Inhibitory Cognitive Control in Adolescents. Frontiers in Psychology 8(921), doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00921.
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