Improving Executive Function
Physical and mental health are naturally correlated, with one always having an influence over the other. This is why getting sick affects our mood immediately, and why we see significant changes in our bodies and overall well-being when we suffer from depression or anxiety. In the same breath, it is why, when we lack daily movement, it negatively impacts our mood. But even so, few people realise the importance of physical activity when it comes to improving cognitive processes such as executive functions (EFs). Moreover, few people understand that improving executive functions is crucial not only in developing children, but also in adults.
What Is an Executive Function?Executive functions are mental skills. Sets of cognitive processes that help us control and modify our behaviours, behaviours that are essential to our survival. And while we aren’t born with them, we are all born with the ability to develop and hone them. So, what exactly are they? Executive functions are a common name given to a variety of cognitive processes that enable us to focus our attention, develop working memory, cognitive flexibility, and boost cognitive inhibition and inhibitory control, amongst other things. Without adequately developed executive functions, we wouldn’t be able to perform tasks such as planning, reasoning, or problem-solving. A vast majority of people believe that executive functions are developed in early childhood, when our brains are still developing, and when it’s flexible enough to learn and adapt quickly. However, executive functions change with time. As we get older, our executive functions can be sharpened, but they can also degrade depending on one’s experiences and circumstances. It’s crucial that as individuals chasing optimal human performance we continually work on these abilities and make a conscious effort to enhance them. This can be achieved through a variety of mental practices, but through physical fitness coaching as well.
The Correlation Between Physical Activity and CognitionOne of the primary reasons people turn to exercise is to improve their fitness levels, get stronger, burn some calories and in many cases, change their physical appearance. Whilst those are some of the more aesthetic benefits of exercising, they aren’t the only ones. Physical activity can keep your brain functioning well too. When you’re working on your cardio, for example, you start breathing more heavily, and your heart rate starts going up. This means more oxygen is not only shuttled to your working muscle but also carried to your brain, something which is crucial for better brain health. By increasing oxygen delivery to the brain through exercise, we promote neurogenesis – the process by which new nervous system cells, aka neurons, are produced. Neurogenesis effectively increases brain volume and can serve to protect the brain from conditions such as dementia. There’s another cognitive benefit of exercise – it helps to promote expression and production of neurotrophins, proteins that assist in the survival, development, and function of neurons, and so it boosts brain plasticity, improving both memory and our capacity to learn. Not to mention that physical activity enhances the production of serotonin, the “happiness hormone,” and it provides you with more energy, helps you deal with stress, and even improves your sleep.
Environmental Factors That Impact Executive FunctionCountless factors can influence the development of executive functions in children and adults, and just as with almost everything else, it’s a delicate balance between nature and nurture. When it comes to “nurture,” ensuring a safe and healthy environment is essential for the proper development of executive function abilities. Environmental factors that can impact these functions include:
- Economic situation
- Violence in the home/community
- Abusive relationships
- Chaotic surroundings
- Lack of physical activity
- Stress, and more.
Individual Factors That Impact Executive FunctionOf course, just as “nurture,” aka the environment, can impact the development of EFs, so can an individual’s nature. Countless internal factors can negatively impact the proper development of EFs. Such internal factors include:
- Intellectual disabilities
- Anxiety disorder
- Major depressive disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Physical health problems
- Learning difficulties (e.g., ADHD)