Mentally active physical activity!
May 21, 2016 12:56 PM   Subscribe

Suggestions please :)

So I've been struggling to incorporate more physical activity into my life, and have recently had the following epiphany: I really enjoy exercise that is highly mentally stimulating, and as far away from mindless as possible, and that builds a usable skill.

Some examples of stuff that I've enjoyed which fits this bill:

-salsa dancing. I really have to get my mind around some of the moves and it has real life implications (meeting new people and going out for fun parties)
-long-distance hiking. I did the camino in Spain, and that 720 km or so was so challenging mentally- constant challenges dealing with others, solving spontaneous problems, etc.
-rowing- really have to focus mentally on every detail

Examples of stuff I haven't enjoyed as much:

-zumba. Once I learn the dance moves, they don't really help me on the "real dance floor" so much
-the dreaded treadmill and other machinery mindlessness.

I realize that to excel in any physical activity, the brain must be engaged. But in what exercises is the brain SUPER engaged?

posted by cacao to Health & Fitness (45 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Rock climbing.
posted by telegraph at 12:58 PM on May 21, 2016 [22 favorites]


Any form of partner dancing.

posted by kadia_a at 1:01 PM on May 21, 2016

Table tennis. Like playing chess while running around aka doing the math in mid-air.
posted by vers at 1:02 PM on May 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

What about the Zombies, Run! app?
posted by bleep at 1:03 PM on May 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

Any martial art.
posted by platypus of the universe at 1:07 PM on May 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

Pretty much every team sport works for this.
posted by pipeski at 1:08 PM on May 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

mountain biking can be like this. both climbing and descending you spend a lot of time working out how to keep the bike under control - where to go, how to control the weight, etc. it's more mentally demanding than road biking imho.
posted by andrewcooke at 1:09 PM on May 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

Whitewater kayaking. You really have to be keenly focused and be able to anticipate (or "read") the behavior of water and see obstructions like boulders, tree branches, etc. Exhilarating, I might add.
posted by strelitzia at 1:09 PM on May 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've also been playing ping pong and really enjoying it, but any competitive sport will provide the same excitement.

I've found the challenge of playing people I consistently lose to very rewarding in the long run, too. I've gotten much, much better, but there are weeks where I was losing every single time and had to remind myself to find ways to enjoy it regardless.
posted by billjings at 1:15 PM on May 21, 2016

Seconding mountain biking. On a challenging trail all your concentration is very focused. It's much more "be in the moment" and interacting with the world, whereas hiking and road biking (as well as simple trails) can involve a lot of spacing out for me. Lots of skills to be learned.
posted by bongo_x at 1:37 PM on May 21, 2016

Walking with a chat buddy who talks nonstop about intellectually intense things and barely ever lets you get a word in edgewise, except to confirm that you are following his arcane monologue.

(Ask me how I know.)
posted by Michele in California at 1:38 PM on May 21, 2016 [11 favorites]

Martial arts, dance styles that require a lot of technique, roller skating especially if you have a local roller derby league you can join.
posted by bile and syntax at 1:47 PM on May 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Rock climbing/ bouldering. The technique part is as big a part of succeeding as physical strength and the technical part is often solving problems of balance and leverage.

Dinghy sailing. Actually keel-boat sailing as well, physically demanding and very intellectually challenging, on a keel boat you're much more part of a team.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:51 PM on May 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

Horseback riding - take lessons, compete.
posted by Sassyfras at 1:56 PM on May 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

Belly dancing. Slightly less practical for real-world dance skills than salsa but infinitely more so than Zumba. Also helps meet new people and fun parties (haflas).

I also find circuit training to require a mental focus, especially in a class setting.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 2:00 PM on May 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

posted by barnoley at 2:33 PM on May 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

BJJ. Mr Mayhem calls it physical chess.
posted by mollymayhem at 2:37 PM on May 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

3rding rock climbing.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:44 PM on May 21, 2016

Also if rock climbing isn't your thing bouldering might be. Lots of careful planning of your hand & foot holds, but also nicely social as people can sit & watch you & only be 10 or 20 feet away & offer advice or encouragement and you don't always have to drive so far to do it. Apparently there are boulders in Central Park that people will climb.
posted by wwax at 3:14 PM on May 21, 2016

Geocaching where the item is remote and requires hiking etc to get there.
posted by Jubey at 3:16 PM on May 21, 2016

Trail running - it's a lot more interesting and challenging than road or track running, plus you get to see nature and wildlife.
posted by Miko at 3:38 PM on May 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

Yoga! This is exactly why I love yoga - you will never ever get to the perfect version of a pose, there is always a next level. In any pose you could be simultaneously making sure your body is in the right position, your gaze point is in the right place, your feet and hands are totally engaged, your bandhas (core muscles) are engaged, that your weight distribution is correct, and that's just as far as I've gotten after a few years. You often work into poses as well, which is very mentally demanding - so you start in one position, then with every breath you scan the parts of your body that you can "switch off" so you can go deeper into the pose. It's such a stimulating practice!
posted by ukdanae at 3:56 PM on May 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

Weightlifting! Proper form requires a lot of thinking. (Not unlike rowing in that way.)
posted by momus_window at 4:04 PM on May 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Orienteering for sure. My husband calls it "treasuring hunting while running." Or in our case, hiking at a leisurely speed. But you CAN run!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:50 PM on May 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you have a dog, you might take an agility class with him/her.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 4:51 PM on May 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I want to second (third?) orienteering and trail running, and add mountain biking.
posted by brozek at 4:56 PM on May 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Fencing! It's commonly called "physical chess" because it really involved thinking and anticipating your opponent, but it is also fantastic exercise.
posted by chapps at 5:13 PM on May 21, 2016

Ultimate frisbee
posted by alicat at 6:01 PM on May 21, 2016

Jiu jitsu/grappling does this for me. Intense, technical, complex.
posted by egregious theorem at 6:22 PM on May 21, 2016

in my youth, rock climbing seemed to attract computer scientists and musicians in equal measure: the mental and physical elements of problem solving while exerting and scared (trad w long runouts. grays represent)
posted by j_curiouser at 6:23 PM on May 21, 2016

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Never done it, but from how it's been described to me, it sounds like chess meets trying to pin someone to the ground.

Ocean kayaking. You have to really learn to watch not only the water/winds/tides but also the skies above you if you don't want to get caught out in deadly situations.
posted by astapasta24 at 6:30 PM on May 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I find that bodyweight circuit-training type exercise engages my mind (because I'm paying attention to form, and because no one exercise lasts very long) and feels very real-world (because being able to bend, squat, pull, and lift things in my daily life is fairly important). I often use dumbbells and the TRX equipment rather than just bodyweight, because I do it at the gym and they're easily available, but you certainly don't have to.
posted by lazuli at 6:35 PM on May 21, 2016

Circus arts (trapeze, aerial silks, handstands, etc.)!
posted by nevers at 6:58 PM on May 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

posted by babelfish at 7:09 PM on May 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ballet, I've found.
posted by you're a kitty! at 7:31 PM on May 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

posted by TheCavorter at 8:17 PM on May 21, 2016

Swimming is right there with rowing as far as focusing on form goes, and there are four competitive strokes to learn! Of course, you might find going back and forth in a pool boring, but I've suggested it because it's in the same vein as rowing, mentally. Plus, being a strong swimmer is a very usable skill.
posted by Gymnopedist at 9:17 PM on May 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Any form of martial art or boxing that involves sparring. You have to master fear and be able to analyze your opponent's weaknesses in real time, while attacking and defending. BJJ and wrestling are also great for this.
posted by benzenedream at 12:05 AM on May 22, 2016

Capoeira. Can require you to master challenging movements (but if you're older and slow moving, try capoeira angola, which is not as gymnastic if you don't want to do that stuff); requires strategic thinking as you play/fight with your partner; you learn Portuguese, and to sing, and to play percussion. I find it stimulates all the parts, as it were.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:43 AM on May 22, 2016

Another vote for martial arts, fencing in particular. In addition to the benefits mentioned above, it really helped improve my balance and reflexes. And it's a deciptively intense workout; lessons were generally only 20 minutes and then I'd find sparring partners afterwards. (It's also not at all as stuffy or uptight as I expected. It's a diverse sport that seems to attract a lot of goofballs and weirdos, in the best sense of the words.)
posted by Room 641-A at 2:54 AM on May 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ballet classes have a formalized structure where you are taught a combination - the instructor will usually demonstrate it once and talk through it once - and then immediately perform it. This happens probably 15-20 times per class. As well as being challenging exercise in its own right, your memory is constantly engaged. Steps are all in French, and there are zillions of them. Combinations get tricky. Once you feel comfortable with the names of steps and remembering combinations, you can start thinking about technique. There is always a way to improve whatever you're doing, which means you always have a goal to work towards.

It's less useful on the dance floor than something like salsa (which high school me can tell you from sad, sad experience), but it has a lot of physical benefits and more variation than Zumba. Posture, flexibility, body awareness, balance, etc. Many schools affiliated with professional companies (for example, Washington Ballet, Ballet Atlanta, Boston Ballet) and many studios have open adult classes for a bunch of different levels that welcome men and women (I teach at one in Ohio)!
posted by ChuraChura at 5:40 AM on May 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nthing Rock climbing and yoga for sure! Nothing else has stuck for me over the years. Rock climbing because it involves problem solving, and Yoga because you're always working towards a perfect position, and it's so precise. Both keep me completely absorbed and I'm able to switch off. I also run - but I do that to keep fit and healthy, and find it a bit of a chore.
posted by Nilehorse at 6:41 AM on May 22, 2016

Minimal set-up, maximum mental focus-challenge (all the while your entire body is in play): slacklining.

Similarly almost entirely an issue of focus, and pretty straightforward in terms of gear etc. (though less complete, physically): instinctive archery.
posted by progosk at 2:49 PM on May 22, 2016

I do International Folk Dancing, especially dances from the Balkans. The music and rhythms are complex. I'm a pretty good dancer at this point, but still learning all the time. Good exercise, and terrific people. Also, partner not not required, and the only equipment is soft-soled shoes. If you're interested and not finding a group, feel free to email me.
posted by theora55 at 3:16 PM on May 22, 2016

Others have covered rock climbing and mountain biking. I'll second whitewater kayaking; rivers continuously change with different flows and water levels, and other hazards in the river like trees tend to move. If you're kayaking near the upper end of your ability level it leaves no room in your brain for anything else.

Skiing or snowboarding near the edge of your ability level is similarly engaging. Granted, you'll spend some time on a lift or a skin track where you can let your mind wander some, but if you're skiing trees or anything else on the upper end of your ability level, it'll be all that you can focus on.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:59 AM on May 23, 2016

« Older Another round of: name our cat?   |   Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and.. start a... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.