We know that playing sports can be good for physical health, but what about cognitive health? A study published in Psychology of Sport & Exercise suggests that sports training can help improve cognitive flexibility.
Cognitive flexibility is a very important capability that allows people to adjust to changes in their environments, including performing multiple tasks at once or creatively thinking. Evidence has shown that sports can be an effective tool in building cognitively flexibility, as training requires a high degree of engaging with cognitive functions.
An under-researched topic is how sports that combine cognition and physical athleticism may be able to help improve cognitive flexibility even further. This study sought to address that gap in research by exploring orienteering, which is a sport that involves navigating unfamiliar terrain while moving quickly, and is thought to use similar levels of physical and cognitive fitness.
For their study, Weronika Krol and Aleksandra Gruszka utilized 100 Polish participants aged 18 to 50 years old to serve as their sample. The experimental group was 50 people who engaged at least once a week in orienteering training and the control group was made up of 50 middle- and long-distance runners.
Participants completed several cognitive tests, including tasks on divergent thinking, verbal fluency, voluntary switching, and a self-report cognitive flexibility measure. Participants also completed demographic information and answered questions about their sporting activity.
Results showed that participants who were orienteers scored higher on tasks of divergent thinking, verbal fluency, and voluntary switching, which is consistent with the researcher’s hypothesis that cognitive fluency would be improved by the adaptability and multitasking involved in orienteering. The only measure the orienteering group did not score higher on was the self-report cognitive flexibility measure, which is subject to bias.
Additionally, difference training characteristics, such as the frequency and regularity of the training, were associated with cognitive flexibility. For orienteering participants, around 38% of the variance in cognitive flexibility was explained by the training habits. These results suggest that an activity that requires both cognitive and athletic focus can increase cognitive flexibility, especially when they are trained for regularly.
This study took important steps into better understanding cognitive flexibility related to different types of athletic groups. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that we must consider the possibility that people who display higher levels of cognitive flexibility are pursuing these complex sports, not that these sports are causing cognitive flexible. Additionally, the sample size for this study was small and recruited mostly by word-of-mouth between athletes, which could enhance homogeneity of the group and limit generalizability.
Nevertheless, “the study succeeded in showing, for the first time, that the practice of orienteering, thanks to the complexity of demands involving cognitive and physical aspects, is associated with increased levels of cognitive flexibility,” the researchers concluded. “This relationship between sports training and the level of cognitive flexibility seems promising in light of the study presented, as well as of the literature.”
“The implications of the conducted research have direct relevance to society’s quality of life,” they added. “It is conceivable that, because of being widely available and relatively cost-effective, interventions developed on the basis of research findings similar to those presented in the present paper provide an excellent method of coping with some of the difficulties or attenuating cognitive disadvantages that manifest themselves, for example, in the course of ageing.
“Practising sports (tailored to an individual’s abilities) is within the reach of almost all people, and the benefits of doing so on many levels are enormous. Cognitive flexibility, on the other hand, is an extremely important mental function, so deepening one’s knowledge of it is advisable, especially if, to quote a classic, the only constant in life is change (Heraclitus of Ephesus).”
The study, “Is running a state of mind? Sports training as a potential method for developing cognitive flexibility“, was authored by Weronika Król and Aleksandra Gruszka.