A recent University of Florida (UF) study indicates that older adults who completed cognitive tasks while cycling on a stationary bike exhibited improved cycling speeds while multitasking; with no cost to their cognitive performance.

The results, according to a university news release, buck the conventional belief that suggests multitasking causes one or both activities to suffer.

The release classifies the study’s findings as a “surprise” for investigators Lori Altmann, an associate professor of speech, language, and hearing sciences at the College of Public Health and Health Professions, and Chris Hass, an associate professor of applied physiology and kinesiology in the College of Health and Human Performance.

The researchers, the release says, originally aimed to determine the degree to which dual task performance suffers in patients with Parkinson’s disease. In order to accomplish this, researchers reportedly asked a group of patients with Parkinson’s and a group of healthy older adults to complete a series of increasingly difficult cognitive while cycling.

Altmann points out that, “Every dual-task study that I’m aware of show when people are doing two things at once they get worse.”

The release reports that participants’ cycling speed was about 25% faster while doing the easiest cognitive tasks, but became slower as the cognitive tasks became more difficult. Yet, the hardest tasks only brought participants back to the speeds at which they were cycling before beginning the cognitive tasks.

“It was as if the cognitive tasks took their minds off the fact that they were pedaling,” Altmann explains.

The findings indicate that blending the easiest cognitive tasks with physical activity may be a way to encourage individuals to exercise more vigorously. The researchers note they plan to make this a topic for future research.

The release notes during the study, 28 participants with Parkinson’s disease and 20 healthy older adults completed 12 cognitive tasks while sitting in a quiet room and again while cycling. Tasks ranged in difficulty from saying the word “go” when a blue star was shown on a projection screen to repeating increasingly long lists of numbers in reverse order of presentation.

A video motion capture system recorded participants’ cycling speed.

Researchers say participants’ cycling speed was faster while performing the cognitive tasks, with the most improvement during the six easiest cognitive tasks. Cognitive performance while cycling was similar to baseline across all tasks.

The reasons behind participants’ multitasking success likely includes multiple factors, the researchers note. However, they hypothesize that one explanation could be the cognitive arousal that happens when individuals anticipate completing a difficult cognitive task. Similarly, they say, exercise increases arousal in regions of the brain that control movement. In turn, arousal heightens the release of neurotransmitters that improve speed and efficiency of the brain, particularly the frontal lobes, thus improving performance in motor and cognitive tasks.

Altmann states that specifically, what arousal does is provide you more attention to focus on a task.

“When the tasks were really easy, we saw the effect of that attention as people cycled very fast. As the cognitive tasks got harder, they started impinging on the amount of attention available to perform both tasks, so participants didn’t cycle quite so fast,” Altmann notes.

Per the release, study participants with Parkinson’s disease cycled slower overall and did not speed up as much as the healthy older adults. This may result from arousal that stems from cognitive and physical exercise that is dependent on dopamine and other neurotransmitters, which are impaired in individual’s with Parkinson’s, the release notes.

Additionally, Altmann and Hass are currently studying whether multitasking benefits will extend to other types of exercise, including the use of an elliptical trainer. The researchers emphasize their hope that they will one day investigate whether pairing mental tasks with exercise can lead to both cognitive and fitness improvements in older adults.

[Source: University of Florida]