08/06/2015 12:56 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2016

Climb a Tree for Working Memory: Part 2

By Dr. Ross Alloway

If you haven't yet read part one of the blog, let me give you a little recap: Looking to break out of a rut at the gym a few years ago, I came across a radically different approach to exercise, called Movnat. I noticed that it requires the use of working memory, a key cognitive skill that you use all throughout your daily life. The question is, can such exercises not only use working memory but also improve it? Can certain exercises exercise our brains and our muscles at the same time?

In order to find out if the proprioceptively demanding movements of Movnat improved working memory, we recruited a group of volunteers aged 18-59 and we tested their working memory. This way, we had a baseline of their working memory so we could see any differences after they did the exercises.

Next, we handed over the reigns to a Movnat instructor, who taught our participants a wide range of different natural movements, from the proper way to crawl on the ground, how to climb a tree, walking along the top of a fence, and carrying awkwardly weighted objects.

To get an idea of some of the exercises participants did, have a look at this video:

After the training participants were tested again. While we wondered if we would see any improvement in working memory when we started the experiment, we astonished to find a dramatic increase of 50% from the first time they were tested. That's right, certain movements can greatly improve how well you can think.

Now, of course, a skeptical reader would suggest that there were other reasons for the improvement. For example, you could speculate they improved because they were learning something new. So, as a control, we also tested a college class before and after learning new information in a lecture setting, and we found their working memory didn't improve at all.

Why do natural movements improve working memory? We initially theorized that it was due to its proprioceptively demanding nature of the exercises. Proprioception, again, can be defined as awareness of our body position and orientation. Proprioception demands that we think, that we are conscious of what we are doing, and that thinking, and engaging with our environment, is associated with working memory.

So, then, does anything requiring proprioception help our working memory? The answer would seem to be no, at least in our experiment, as we also tested the working memory a group of volunteers doing yoga, and found no improvement. Yoga is all about proprioception, as you have to pay attention to your body position or topple over on to your yoga mat.

We were stumped. If proprioception in natural movement improves working memory, why wouldn't it for people doing yoga? At this point, we had to think more deeply about the nature of the Movnat exercises, and we realized that almost all of them required proprioception AND something else as well. For example Movnat requires you to balance when you are walking along a fence, but it also requires you to move. You don't just crawl with these exercises, you are crawling under something, requiring route planning as well as proprioception.

We call such exercises proprioceptively dynamic, meaning you are always updating, adapting, and changing how you move when you are doing the movements. You can think of it as "proprioception plus one." Cognitively speaking, proprioceptively dynamic movements are like having a conversation with more than one person at the same time. The exercises recruit our brains as much as our bodies, and as the research shows, can really exercise and improve your working memory.

Proprioceptively-dynamic training may place a greater demand on working memory than the yoga control condition, because as environment and terrain changes, the individual recruits working memory to update information to adapt appropriately. Though the yoga control group engaged in proprioceptive activities that required awareness of body position, it was relatively static as they performed the yoga postures in a small space, which did not allow for locomotion or navigation.

Well, so what? How can this research help me and my workout? Stay tuned for the next installment when we discuss the practical implications of this research, and how you can integrate it into your own workouts.