Maintaining a workout routine isn’t just good for your fitness – it could help you focus better

A new study has revealed a link between regular exercise and goal-orientated cognitive control. Here’s what that means for you.     

We live in a world full of distractions. From text messages and emails to voice notes and social media notifications, staying on track isn’t always easy. But aside from moving to a cabin in the middle of nowhere or throwing all your digital devices away, what can you do to help yourself focus more easily?

According to a new study, the answer could lie in your exercise routine. The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychology Of Sport And Exercise, found that people who maintain a regular workout routine are more likely to have robust ‘proactive control’ – a cognitive skill that helps you to keep your ‘eye on the prize’ and anticipate potential disruptions or mental blocks before they occur.  

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Based on a study of 132 university students, the researchers found that those in the ‘high activity’ group were better at maintaining proactive control when presented with two different types of tasks. This means that, when presented with a goal, they were able to think ahead of time and pre-empt the work needed to reach it (including any hurdles they might need to overcome), rather than reacting to an issue at the last minute.

But what has proactive control got to do with working out regularly? While more research is needed to define whether the correlation between the two is simply coincidental or not, the science writer Christopher Bergland suggests it could be to do with the way exercise teaches us to navigate discomfort. 

“With practice, regular gymgoers learn how to anticipate and silence subconscious urges to ‘throw in the towel’ before they’ve achieved a predetermined goal by exercising proactive control,” he writes for Psychology Today. “Sustaining this goal-directed focus by blocking mental interference requires flexing the prefrontal cortex and exerting top-down cognitive control using working memory.” 

So, there you have it. Not only is working out good for your health and overall fitness, but it can also teach you to pre-empt and overcome challenges in other areas of your life. Something to keep in mind next time you’re struggling through that last painful set. 

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