Really focusing while exercising could help your brain refresh

By the end of the year, most of us are ready for a bit of a brain break and, while it might sound counter-intuitive, evolving your exercise routine may just be one of the most effective ways to do it.

A new study, published in the journal Sports Health, explored whether sportspeople process sounds differently to others, specifically looking at their ability to tune out extraneous sound around them.

Regular exercise can help make parts of the brain “quieter”.Credit:Getty

The researchers, from Northwestern University in the United States, hypothesised that because athletes have to be able to tune out from the noise of crowds or other sounds around them to focus during competition, they may have “enriched” auditory processing abilities.

To test the idea, they took 495 university athletes, who competed in a range of different sports, and 493 university students who do not play sport and hooked them all up to electrodes to measure their brain activity while attempting to distinguish the speech syllable “da” being played against background noise.

They found, compared with the non-athletes, the athletes’ brains were more responsive to the “da”.

“Basically, their brains were quieter,” lead researcher Dr Nina Kraus told the New York Times, adding that they had altered their brains through their training: “Brains change in response to that kind of repeated experience.”

This ability to focus and give our brains a break from external (and internal) chatter and become “quieter” is also one of the keys to meditation, relaxation and stress relief.

Typically, meditation works when we shut ourselves off to external stimulation for a period of time by closing our eyes and sitting in a quiet place.

This study suggests we may not need to physically remove ourselves from distraction in order to elicit the same effect. Instead, we can do it through regular exercise, be that team sports or individual.

“For a lot of people sport is meditation, right? Some sports, in particular, require incredible focus where you have to shut out distractors,” says David Alais, a professor of psychology at the University of Sydney who specialises in sensory processing.

Rock climbing is one example where “they’re just completely focused on their next move and everything just fades out of their mind”. Surfing, where people float on the water, focusing on the horizon and watching the line be still or swell, is another.

“A lot of sportspeople get in that really focused zone and it’s kind of a meditation because you’re filtering out everything else and keeping that one thing clear in your mind,” Alais explains. “We don’t normally think of it as meditation but sport can definitely be meditating.”

Even though we’re giving our brain a break from the background noise of life when we play sport, Alais says you wouldn’t say the brain is “quieter”.

“It’s a different kind of brain activity. It’s a brain activity that’s self-generated, that’s reflective, that’s calm. When you are meditating you are shutting out external stimuli but when you do meditate and do these quiet things there’s a part of your brain that gets really active … it’s like a seesaw – one end goes down and the other one goes up.”

In a way, he says, it can be an exercise in “sort of taking control of the hardware” of our brain and that feels good.

Even better than that, in a world where external stimulation is relentless and “as long as there are stimuli pouring in we will be captured by it and our minds will get busy processing what they’re seeing” it gives us the chance to press pause and allow a different part of our brain to take over.

Whether we do it through exercise, through meditation or relaxation techniques, it supports a similar process and one that is underutilised in most of us: “It gives us a rest.“

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