THE CONNECTION BETWEEN a healthy body and a healthy mind has been well established. But, can “increasing physical activity help the sharpest minds get even sharper?” That’s a question a new documentary, sponsored by ASICS, set out to answer.
In “Mind Games – The Experiment,” which is available on Amazon Prime Video, four competitive mind gamers—a chess master, memory game champion, esports competitor, and mahjong player—from around the world, who were mostly inactive, kickstart an exercise program. The experiment examined whether regular exercise could boost their brainpower and help them perform better in competition.
“We all know that exercise is good for our mental and physical health, but the impact on cognitive functioning has been less explored,” Brendon Stubbs, a researcher in movement and the mind at King’s Collge London, who developed and led the experiment, said in a press release.
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“We wanted to examine the effects of exercise on people who depend on their cognitive abilities—competitive mind gamers,” he said.
The documentary focused on competitors including American chess player Kassa Korley and esports competitor Sherry Nhan, mahjong player Ryoei Hirano from Japan, and English memory game competitor Ben Pridmore. But the experiment involved a much larger group of mind gamers from 21 countries.
Their fitness levels were tested before they started the exercise regimen. Then, they followed a training program designed by coach Andrew Kastor, which included medium-impact cardio and strength training for up to 150 hours a week.
Stubbs monitored their physical activity and measured their mental improvement based on their performance in their games, cognitive tests, and well-being questionnaires.
While the results confirmed what we already know—that exercise is great for your brain—they were pretty impressive.
At the end of the experiment, the participants improved their international gaming rankings by 75 percent, according to the documentary. Other overall group improvements included:
- 10 percent boost in cognitive function, including a 9 percent improvement in problem-solving abilities, a 12 percent increase in short-term memory, and a 10 percent boost in processing speed and alertness
- 44 percent increase in confidence levels
- 33 percent improvement in concentration
- 43 percent drop in anxiety levels
- 31 percent improvement in state-of-mind scores
Some of the individual competitors saw larger improvements.
According to ASICS, the research shows that exercise may be just as effective at improving brain function as learning a new language, reading daily, learning a new musical instrument, or completing a puzzle every day.
Exercise has been shown to trigger cell growth in the brain and increase blood flow to the brain’s hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, which help you remember, process information, and solve problems quickly, Stubbs said.
“If exercise can significantly increase the mental performance of professional mind gamers, imagine what it could do for the rest of us,” he said. “From increasing focus when revising for an exam or improving alertness before a work presentation, exercise truly can enhance brain power.”
Erica Sweeney is a writer who mostly covers health, wellness and careers. She has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Parade, Money, Business Insider and many more.