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It’s 2:30 p.m. and your brain feels like mush. You’ve already been on video calls for hours today, and you’ve only got a 40-minute break to get ready for more. Your cognitive performance has gotten worse, and you can barely remember what everyone is talking about, much less what you’d like to contribute during the meeting. You feel terrible about it, and because you feel terrible, your motivation to keep pushing plummets.
How can you simultaneously shake off that mental exhaustion and feel positive about the afternoon ahead? Should you grab a coffee? Scroll through social media? Lay on the floor and hope it’s over soon? Well, how about a run?
Study: exercise reverses brain drain in 30 minutes
When you’re feeling burned out and overwhelmed, exercise might be the last thing on your mind. But as it turns out, a quick workout might be just the pick-me-up you need to shake off mental fatigue and nail the next task.
In a newly-published study by German researchers, subjects with cognitive fatigue were grouped into three interventions: 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, 30 minutes of easy stretching, or 30 minutes of watching TV sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” Despite the fun of watching reruns of everyone’s favorite physicists, it was the group that cycled for 30 minutes on an exercise bike that reported feeling less mentally tired, had improved mood and better perception of their mental capability, plus showed improved ability to take on new tasks. In short, 30 minutes of movement restored higher-order executive functions, helping workers get back online and ready for action.
The great thing about this recent research is that you get short-term and long-term benefits to the workout. In the short term, you’ll feel refreshed, but you may also be combating long-term negative alterations in brain structure and function that can come with chronic, persistent mental fatigue. All the lounging and Netflix in the world won’t do that.
Designing workouts that energize, not drain
Getting out for a quick sweat might be the key to getting through your afternoon slump, but there are a few things to keep in mind. In this study, the more mentally fatigued people felt, the more the 30-minute cycle made them feel refreshed. It may not have the same effect if people were bored or otherwise not cognitively overloaded.
This study also only looked at 30 minutes of easy (65-75% VO2 Max) aerobic exercise, and it is not clear what effect the workout would have if it were of longer duration or higher intensity. Since we know that mental stress and physical stress build off each other, it’s likely that if a too long or too intense exercise session puts additional strain on the body, it could contribute to fatigue and not help you recover from it.
It’s also important to note that the participants were active, but not athletes, and were measured for cognitive effects, not physical. Therefore, if you’re out there worried about what your watch or heart rate monitor says, you might be defeating the purpose. Think of these midday workouts as a moment to disconnect, not dial in to more data.
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How to get motivated for a workout (when you’re anything but)
The findings of the study sound great in theory, but there’s a difference between a laboratory setting and your home office. You’re not alone if you lack the motivation to get off the couch when your neurons are fried. Studies show plenty of people will choose to blow off a workout when they are feeling overwhelmed, because the long-term benefits are not as important as their immediate need to chill. For this reason, it’s a good idea to schedule a midday slump-busting workout in the same way you would a meeting or important work-related task. This way, you see this quick session as important as your work-related duties (because in a way, is). Having this plan in place, along with the equipment you need set aside and ready to go when it’s time, will make it more likely you’ll follow through—even if your tired mind isn’t 100% on board at first.
A cognitive refresh
You don’t need to be working from home or suffering from Zoom gloom to benefit from the findings of this study. It can be used as another tool in your training arsenal for the days when you feel the most burned out and mentally fatigued. If you have to psych yourself up to return to any mentally demanding tasks or you’re feeling discouraged about your ability to focus, a little spin around the neighborhood might help you power through. Your brain will thank you for the boost.