Brain Health
Senior Health

Multitasking Can Be a Good Thing

Who says you can’t do two things at once and do them both well?

Multitasking isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, older adults who rode on a stationary bike while completing cognitive tasks found that their cycling speed increased without damaging their cognitive performance.

Results of the study, which was supported by a grant from the National Institute on Aging, were published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The discovery was a surprise finding for University of Florida investigators Lori Altmann, an associate professor of speech, language and hearing sciences at the College of Public Health and Health Professions, and Chris Hass, an associate professor of applied physiology and kinesiology in the College of Health and Human Performance.

According to a news release from the university the researchers originally set out to determine the degree to which dual task performance suffers in patients with Parkinson’s disease. To do this, the researchers had a group of patients with Parkinson’s and a group of healthy older adults complete a series of increasingly difficult cognitive tests while cycling.

The results were surprising.

“Every dual-task study that I’m aware of shows when people are doing two things at once they get worse,” Altmann said. “Everybody has experienced walking somewhere in a hurry when the person in front of them pulls out a phone, and that person just slows to a crawl. Frankly, that’s what we were expecting.”

Compared with their cycling speed while they were not doing any tasks, participants’ cycling speed was about 25 percent faster while doing the easiest cognitive tasks. But their speed became slower as the cognitive tasks grew more difficult. At the same time, though, the hardest tasks only brought participants back to the speeds at which they were cycling before beginning the tasks.

The researchers said the findings indicate that combining the easier cognitive tasks with physical activity may be a way to get people to exercise more vigorously. The researchers plan to make this a topic for future research.

“As participants were doing the easy tasks, they were really going to town on the bikes, and they didn’t even realize it,” Altmann said. “It was as if the cognitive tasks took their minds off the fact that they were pedaling.”

In the study, 28 participants with Parkinson’s disease and 20 healthy older adults completed 12 cognitive tasks while sitting in a quiet room and again while cycling. The tasks ranged in difficulty from  saying the word ‘go’ when a blue star was shown on a projection screen to repeating increasingly long lists of numbers in reverse order of presentation. A video motion capture system recorded participants’ cycling speed.

The participants with Parkinson’s disease cycled slower overall and didn’t speed up as much as the healthy older adults. That could be because arousal that stems from cognitive and physical exercise is dependent on dopamine and other neurotransmitters, which are impaired in people with Parkinson’s.


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