Climb a Tree for Working Memory


Written by Ross Alloway

I like exercise, but I don’t like gyms. I’ve even run in a blizzard to avoid a slog on the treadmill. I suppose the reason I feel this way is that gyms seem artificial to me — the air conditioning, the thumping music, the way they encourage movements that bear little relation to the real world. Consider, for example, the number of times you have done triceps extensions or isolated bicep curls outside of a gym. Probably never.

I also think that a traditional gym environment may encourage cognitive passivity. Rather than being mentally engaged when we go to a gym, we often turn our Ipods on in order to switch our brains off, and drown ourselves in a haze of auto-tuned vocals and auto-tuned movements. You don’t have to think to do a leg extension or a bench press, and this is often intentionally designed this way, as gym users seem not to want to think about what they are doing.

Available evidence supports this notion, showing that whatever the physical benefits of conventional anaerobic exercise, there is little evidence of cognitive benefits, particularly for working memory.

Working Memory, the active processing of information, is linked to performance in a wide variety of contexts, from grades to sports. Tracy’s research has shown that the better your working memory, the better your results in contexts where you have to process information.

If you were a best man at a wedding, for example, and you discovered that you had left your notes for your speech on the kitchen table at home, it would be your working memory that would allow you to manage the stress of public speaking, and, at the same time, piece together information you know about the newlyweds in a witty and heartwarming manner.

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