Physical exercise for mental strength?
May 16, 2017 7:01 AM   Subscribe

This morning on the radio, Gary Kasparov talked about how he beat chess players much younger than himself because he stayed in better physical shape. What physical exercise best helps mental strength?

I'm interested both in general principles (what kinds of exercise? how much? when?) and specific exercise routines.
posted by clawsoon to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Feel free to flag this answer if it's too obvious, but yoga has a very prominent mindfulness component to it. It is safe and healthy to practice yoga every day, but you should learn from a reputable instructor before practicing on your own.
posted by capricorn at 7:07 AM on May 16

As I understand it, it's not that certain specific exercises can help; it's that exercise in general helps. It's pretty well established that just about any physical activity improves mood, and can help you to focus. Sticking to an exercise routine will build self-discipline, and improving fitness can build self-confidence. The latter, especially, is what I suspect Kasparov might be getting at. I remember something about Tiger Woods from back in his heyday that claimed his rigorous exercise regimen (alas, maybe too rigorous, in hindsight) was part of the reason he dominated the PGA Tour: it didn't actually help him play golf that much better, but when other golfers with bellies hanging over their belts would stand next to Tiger, they'd get intimidated by his physique, and that intimidation would then subconsciously affect their golf game.

I'm not aware of anything claiming that, say, doing bicep curls will make you better at logical reasoning. With regard to chess specifically, I've read both Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen talking about how one of their strengths is their intense concentration, which can overpower less-focused opponents. With that in mind, I suspect that endurance exercise, where you have to concentrate on something for a long period of time, might be helpful to develop that intense concentration. Specifically, I think something like swimming or cross-country skiing, where you have to constantly focus on technique, or interval training with periods of one minute or so (e.g., short enough where you don't just coast) would be best.

The one physical thing I do that does have an impact on mental functioning is juggling. Trying to juggle while also reading or having a conversation or something like that will help you focus and avoid distraction (avoid distraction, he says as he types out a comment on MetaFilter at work).
posted by kevinbelt at 7:25 AM on May 16 [4 favorites]

My kid used to be in occupational therapy. His therapist always said "tired big msucles allows little muscles to think". Every therapy session started with fun movement to tire his body ...and then, he could focus better. It's an interesting concept and I still use it for both kids. I'll send them for a run if we are getting too frustrated with homework or projects.
posted by Ftsqg at 7:47 AM on May 16 [14 favorites]

Any exercise or sport that demands focus and incremental development of skill asks that people simultaneously attend to goal (often involving visualization - there's a lot of sport psychology written on this) and process. This gives people tools to approach at least sport-related problems with a problem-solving, constructive attitude (that can be extended to other areas of life). Persistence (in the face of obstacles) and stamina (over time), too. Goal attainment is rewarding, as well, and can boost self-esteem.

Cardiovascular exercise has been associated with improved recall in animal and human studies. (Some think, because of the spike in various hormones and neurotransmitters.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:01 AM on May 16

I find that the more I'm running, the more focused I can stay at work -- not all things we call "endurance" are the same, but there seems to be some overlap.
posted by Etrigan at 8:36 AM on May 16 [3 favorites]

I think that table tennis is one good example. It can be relaxing, but it can also be a way to focus and can be very physically demanding. The more you are able to focus, the more skilled you can become, and practice, just hitting in rhythm over and over again, can be very meditative.
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:42 AM on May 16

I remember a similar story about chess players and the exercise cited was swimming.
posted by vignettist at 8:51 AM on May 16

I dabbled in fencing at college, and it struck me as a very mental sport. A Wired article on fencing: " 'The Physical Chess' of the Olympics." (Seems like there's some dispute it would make you better at actual chess, though.)

I got a similar feeling with table tennis, but fencing was much more mentally challenging for me.
posted by Bron at 8:53 AM on May 16

One minute, actually not a joke but with actual peer reviewed research. The more common name is Interval Training and while there are many options they found measurable physiological improvement in a trial of 1 minute three times a week. The book was surprisingly good and I think discusses cognitive topics although it's focused on general health. I've certainly perceived many mind benefits when I'm getting good workouts.
posted by sammyo at 9:17 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure anything will do. The most prolific writers I know claim to be completely dependent on their runs/walks/swims/zumba/spin sessions in order to be firing on all cylinders at the keyboard. A high-performing brain doesn't exist in a jar, it wants to have good insulin levels and healthy functioning organs and a peppy metabolism.

It's not really about the exercise being mentally taxing. Certainly your thinking/creative work could be influenced by your soccer teamwork or yoga practice or bowling strategy, but I don't think the idea is that weightlifting is less beneficial than fencing because it requires less agility or tactical calculation. Really, whatever it is you can do near-daily and keep up with and maintain given your life/climate/financial/health constraints is the best thing.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:38 AM on May 16 [3 favorites]

Most kinds of exercise help: yoga helps me feel in tune with my body, cardio helps me feel focused, athleticism (e.g. agility, sport skill) helps me feel like I can do anything, and so on.

Let me speak specifically to lifting, though. Most people don't realize the tremendous all-encompassing power—mental and physical—that comes with dedicated strength training. There are three primary aspects.
  • dedication leading to personal change: lifting is extraordinary in how reliably it responds to regular effort. The experience of watching your body and capabilities change from the simple input of effort is stunning. Running and other activities can do this too, but I feel that lifting a previously unliftable weight is the most stark. It's nice to reinforce to oneself that effort and discipline produce results.
  • focus: when you're explosively throwing a barbell weighing as much as you weigh overhead, there is no room for distractions. The ability to push aside extraneous thoughts that is developed by going to the gym three times a week to squat underneath ever-heavier, ever-scarier loads is not to be trifled with. Having control over how far to turn the "fear knob" in each workout helps grow this mental attribute.
  • confidence: you know those cheesy karate ads that say they'll develop your kid's confidence? I did karate for ten years and that's mostly marketing baloney. You know what builds confidence? The raw physical power of a double bodyweight deadlift. (For most men it will take less than a year. No matter who you are, there is a medium-term strength goal that will feel like you landed on the moon when you reach it.) You walk differently. It's mostly illogical, but your mammal brain carries itself in a new way when it knows it is strong.
Good resources for this kind of strength program include the book Starting Strength, the 5/3/1 ebook, and other programs with the key attribute of progressive overload on a small, focused number (e.g. 3 to 6) of powerlifting and/or Olympic weightlifting exercises.
posted by daveliepmann at 10:16 AM on May 16 [7 favorites]

Exercise helps your body function better-- better blood flow definitely helps brain function. Exercise can improve digestion, relive aches and pains- all of which would make it easier for you to concentrate mentally. If your body is strong and limber, it is also easier to sit still for long periods. It's said that yoga was originally developed so that monks were better able to sit for long periods in meditation without getting tired or sore.

I do yoga in the morning, and DEFinitely am able to concentrate way better at work than when I did not exercise regularly. I just feel more awake, more alert, and less jittery. I think any kind of vigorous exercise would do the job though.
posted by bearette at 11:06 AM on May 16

The book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John Ratey, MD, discusses this connection.
posted by Lexica at 11:11 AM on May 16 [3 favorites]

Snooker is exactly like chess except it's got balls instead of clergymen and horses, and the table's bigger. The greatest ever snooker player in the history of ever is Ronnie O'Sullivan, and he reckons running has made a huge difference to his game.
posted by ZipRibbons at 11:44 AM on May 16

The New York Times fitness blog Well reported in 2015 on a twin study indicating a negative association between muscular strength--measured at the legs, because leg strength is a good proxy for healthy aging from a physical perspective--and age-related cognitive decline.

I'd also like to second daveliepmann's comment--particularly the 'focus' aspect. Many people don't perceive weightlifting as a meditative activity in the way that they do, for instance, yoga, but I believe it can have a similar quality. When lifting a heavy weight, your mind and your body must be coordinated for that purpose in a very total way, and pretty much any other thought has to be excluded. I find it quite valuable as an antidote to work- or life-related stress for that reason.
posted by egregious theorem at 11:58 AM on May 16 [2 favorites]

Exercises like social dancing, martial arts/wrestling/boxing, and fencing would all seem to exercise some of the same mental faculties as chess.

You learn a basic set of possible moves and learn to combine and apply those moves in reaction to your partner/opponent's anticipated moves from a similar set.

Team sports like football and hockey also do this, but I don't know enough about them to know if the individual players are the ones planning and anticipating strategic movements on a large scale.
posted by windykites at 2:20 PM on May 16

Hmm we don't need to rely on folksy "common sense" or guesswork for this, there is a host of strong research.

here is a fantastic round up of different studies, including the types of exercise and what aspects of cognition they help.
posted by smoke at 4:57 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]

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