Cognitive flexibility is the ability to switch gears between different kinds of thoughts, and the ability to think about multiple concepts at the same time. For example, a person who can go from analyzing why a toaster is not working to discussing the similarities between authors Kevin Hearne and Jim Butcher without a hitch would be a person of cognitive flexibility. The more cognitive flexibility you have, the better you are at learning.
Cognitive flexibility is also a huge component of creativity. Much of the creative act is that of integrating different pieces of knowledge in new and unique ways. This requires cognitive flexibility as a core practice. And exercise increases it.
A study of exercise and cognitive flexibility
Nearly 100 adults participated in a study of exercise and cognitive flexibility. Those who were randomized to the study group did either 3-4 days or 5-7 days per week of aerobic activity. The control group did 0-2 days. (Do you think the control group might have done more exercise than you do?! Time to take a look at what you are doing to your body!) After a 10 week period, researchers found that the more physical activity you do, the more cognitive flexibility you demonstrate.1
You don’t even need 10 weeks of exercise to see improvement in your cognitive flexibility! Another study showed that participants’ capacities to shift thinking, find new answers to questions, and engage in creativity (all hallmarks of cognitive flexibility) were improved after just one 35-minute treadmill session.2
Here’s yet another angle from which to think about this: studies of dancers show that moving to irregular rhythms improves their brain plasticity (the ability of the brain to form alternative and new connections). Perhaps when they are used to moving with regular rhythm their brains stop having to work as hard, and new connections are not as likely to be formed. But when the body starts moving to irregular, unexpected rhythms, the brain has to work to create new connections. This kind of work gives the brain practice in making new connections and thereby improves brain plasticity. The act of learning through movement is more powerful than asking the brain to do something creative without adding body movement. These dancers reaped heightened brain functioning as well as more finely tuned technique, all because the brain benefits from bodily movement.
1. Masley S, Roetzheim R, Gualtieri T. (2009, Jun.). Aerobic exercise enhances cognitive flexibility. J Clin Psychol Med Settings. 16(2), 186-93.
2. Ratey J. (2008) Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company