How multi-tasking can fool your brain into fitness

Please, please stop making excuses about why you don't have time each week to exercise.

I heard it again this week when I was grabbing a coffee and ran into two previous exercise buddies. "Hey Maysie, seeing you I feel guilty now. I just haven't had the time to exercise over the past few months." Supported by his mate: "Yeah, we were so fit at the end of summer, then work just got in the way."

Look, I'm not denying that you're busy - we all are. But when you break it down, each week comprises 168 hours. Allocating three to four of these hours towards exercise is less than 2 per cent of your time.

Think about how much time you spend:

  • Each day on email
  • Sitting in low level meetings that add no value
  • Watching TV each night
  • On Facebook, trawling the internet and other social media
  • Getting distracted throughout the day

Correction: It's not that you don't have time. It's that you haven't made time in your week to prioritise exercise.

I know that comment will get some of you fired up. That's good. I really do believe all of us can find at least a few hours each week to invest in moving and boost our health and wellbeing, fitness, energy levels, brain function, and even improve the way we connect with our families, friends and colleagues.

Now we've dealt with the clock, let's deal with the next biggest barrier to getting and staying fit – the brain. It's amazing how many stories we tell ourselves about not doing a fitness session and they normally start with "it's too …" followed by words like "… hot, cold, hilly, wet, dark, dry, expensive, busy".

The multi-tasking fitness philosophy

For a while now I've been tricking my brain, and those of many clients, into doing what Gigi Davidge from Colour Full calls 'multi-tasking fitness'. Her formula involves combining a mindful activity (like learning or listening to a podcast) with a mindless, repetitive activity (like exercise). I have spoken many times in the past about the perils of multitasking in relation to high-level cognitive processing. From a thinking point of view you are way better off doing one task at a time. But using multi-tasking to help switch off a noisy brain from all of the "it's too" stories, while you get fit, is a masterstroke.


Here are five ways to add multitasking to your fitness program.

1. Learn and Burn

I have been doing a lot of this recently, listening to podcasts while I exercise. Choose one that suits the length of time you are aiming to exercise, so you are inspired to listen and exercise to the end. And there is an unexpected bonus. In a recent study by Altman et al, performing a simple cognitive task while cycling can result in a significantly faster cycling speed. (Translation for all those MAMIL's reading this: learn and get trophies on Strava)

2. Phone talk 'n walk

I was first introduced to this by a colleague, KPMG partner Daniel Knoll, when he left a message on my voice mail saying the best time to call him was after work that day when he was going for a wind-down walk. After a busy day Daniel puts on his walking shoes and heads outside for 45-plus minutes to return phone calls. He says, "When I meet with clients, one of the first things I suggest is walking meetings wherever possible. I also take myself away from the distractions of my desk for phone meetings and head outside for a walk and talk. This gets me valuable exercise (I average 14,000 steps each day), fresh air and helps me stay focused on the call." I'm trying this on travel days and find it is a great way to return messages and connect with my children and loved ones.

3. Daily commute

One of the best ways to stay fit is to swap sitting in chaotic, noisy traffic for a commute that involves moving - walking to work or jumping on your bike. I even know a few people in Sydney who paddle a surf-ski on the harbour to work. What a great way to start the day. Graham Cockerton, a former professional cyclist and now GM of process architecture at CBA, rides his bike from Sydney's northern beaches into the CBD a few days each week. "The commute from home to work is just over 25km and with all of the morning traffic it doesn't take me much longer to ride than it does to drive. Knowing I have locked in 50km each day, a commute is a great way to get fit and have time on the bike," he says.

4. Play with your kids

I am super-passionate about play (and kids). Kids love play – whether it is jumping, climbing a tree, riding a bike or swimming in the ocean. Unfortunately, something happens in our brains as we transition from young children to bigger kids. Physical activity moves from play to perjury and we add in a layer of stories about how busy we are. The absolute best thing you can do for your children is to help them have a positive relationship with physical activity and the foods they eat. Be a positive role model and every week make time where you go to the park, beach, pool, monkey bars or swings and play with your kids. Your kids, and your waistline, will love it! (Oh and please, please be present with your children and leave your digital devices at home or in the car).

5. Physical labour

Considering the majority of us are now employed to sit on our ever-expanding backsides, very few people get enough daily activity (10,000 steps minimum) as a part of our jobs. But another way of disguising fitness is to do activities like gardening, mowing the lawn, chopping firewood and even washing your own car. Anything that involves physical exertion. And there is another benefit to this. In a recent study in the journal Frontiers in Aging and Neuroscience, people with a higher cardio-respiratory fitness level not only showed greater brain activation in the frontal lobe, the area that manages time, planning and organisation, but they were also better at performing two simultaneous tasks compared with a single one. Not there's a bonus worth having.

Do you use multi-tasking to trick your brain into getting fit? What other mind tricks do you employ to help motivate you to exercise? Let us know in the Comments section.

Workplace performance expert Andrew May is a Partner at KPMG Performance Clinic, a best-selling author and keynote speaker. He has spent the past 20 years helping business leaders and their teams improve performance, productivity and wellbeing.

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