Canterbury: The preliminary research findings of University of Canterbury (UC) PhD student Megan Blakely have the potential to improve sporting performance, as well as health and safety in occupations like construction and emergency response. Megan has been using mobile devices, like smartphones, to research the impact on human performance of simultaneously doing both motor tasks, like running, and cognitive tasks, like map reading. Megan has been working with Professor Deak Helton in UC’s Psychology Department.
In the study, skilled multisport athletes were tasked with running on
a mountain trail or flat grass running track as fast as they could for
five minutes. They did runs with no cognitive task, a low demand
cognitive task (keeping track of one frequency tone) and a high demand
cognitive task (keeping track of three different frequency tones).
Physical performance reduced markedly as cognitive tasks became more
complex. Running distance was reduced with increasing cognitive demands
and this happened regardless of terrain difficulty. Tone counting
performance was only reduced when it was the high demand tone counting
task and only on challenging terrain. Participants also did counting
tasks while seated as a control condition.
The study has just been accepted for international publication in the Institute of Industrial Engineers Transactions on Occupational Human Factors and Ergonomics and could have wide ranging application.
Megan says her own experience as a multi-sport athlete has helped her see the real world applications for the research.
“Many sports like orienteering, rock-climbing, paddling, abseiling,
skydiving or yachting may all see benefits from better understanding the
impacts of multi-tasking,” says Megan.
Beyond sport, Megan says the findings are relevant to those in the
police or military, as well as construction or emergency response, where
workers have to consider plans or strategy, listen to intelligence
information, or communicate with team members while undertaking
physically demanding work.
“It’s about understanding the mechanisms that affect performance,”
says Megan, who has been studying at UC in her hometown of Christchurch
for six years.
The UC research attracted international attention because it is
unique in studying precisely the nature of the relationship between
actual mental demand and control over physical output – running speed,
as well as studying it in more naturalistic or realistic settings. Other
research teams worldwide focusing on the interaction of cognitive and
physical work typically employ treadmills and stationary cycles, which
underestimate the mental demands of physical tasks done in the real
Megan says better understanding the relationship between whole body
exercise and high order thinking will potentially be of use to sporting
coaches, tactical leaders and athletes alike.