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Improve Your Mental Alertness and Body Awareness Through Exercise

Kelli Palmer's picture
Exercise and Mental Health

What comes to mind when you hear “benefits of exercise?” Most of us think something along the lines of; weight loss, lose the muffin top, tighten the glutes. Others may be aware of the general health benefits; decrease blood pressure, improve joint mobility, decrease resting heart rate. However, did you realize that you could also improve your mental alertness, body awareness and focus through a quality exercise program?


Most of your typical gym strength training programs will not improve mental alertness and focus. Why? The majority of these programs consist of fixed motion machines that require you to sit and involve very little brain and central nervous system activation. While seated, moving the machine through a preset/fixed motion, does not require much focus. You cannot move the machine in any pattern other than the preset “correct” motion. These machines typically utilize one muscle group and repeat the motion, exactly the same for however many desired repetitions. Likewise, the most common cardio equipment, does not offer much variety. Sure you can adjust the speed and incline on the treadmill, but once set your body adapts very quickly to the new demands and can predict the straight line/smooth path.

Instead of using a seated machine, perform compound exercises. For example, replace the seated chest press machine and squat rack with the compound exercise of walking side squats with a medicine ball chest press. Which one will require more mental focus? The compound exercise has you performing a squat, while side stepping, and simultaneously chest pressing a medicine ball. This exercise demands your mental focus and requires your central nervous system to “talk to” multiple muscles at once to contract (glutes, hamstrings, quads, core, chest, triceps and shoulders). Additionally, it requires body awareness, foot placement and stability. With this open chain movement, you have to think, move and be aware. Whereas, seated on a machine, your body does not require much guidance and therefore your brain and central nervous system are not very active.

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Another great way to improve on your mental alertness is to perform exercises that require movement in unpredictable patterns. These exercises work on your quick decision making ability through agility exercises. For this exercise, you will need a partner. Standing on a BOSU ball have your partner toss you a lightweight medicine ball (1-2lbs) in a random pattern so you have to reach up, reach down, lean left, lean right. This exercise requires complete mental focus, there is NO advance notice of the trajectory of the ball.

So next time you are tempted by the “lazy” seated machines in the gym, challenge yourself to exercises that will, not only strengthen your visible muscles, but will strengthen your brain power as well. Begin by performing ALL exercises in a standing position, then add multiple muscles, and finally add vertical or horizontal movements. This will keep your brain active throughout the entire exercise, instead of being on cruise control.

Note: there are some instances when seated, fixed pattern machines are beneficial. If you have injuries that prevent you from standing for extended periods of time, or if there is a safety concern over your stability, you may need the seated machines. Additionally, if you are in rehab for a prior injury and are performing specific rehab exercises, then seated machines may be advisable.

Research study: BritishJournal Sports Medicine 2014;48:12 973-979 Published Online First: 6 March 2013