Army Eyes ‘Brain Exercise’ to Up Soldier Performance

Army Eyes ‘Brain Exercise’ to Up Soldier Performance

Soldiers run on treadmills as part of a study.
Photo by: U.S. Army/Paul Lagasse

“Brain exercise” could improve soldiers’ physical well-being and help them perform better under stress or while fatigued, according to researchers at the Army Medical Research and Development Command’s Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. 

“We’re not saying that cognitive training can make you smarter, but it’s well established that we tend to get better on the things we train on and get worse on things that we ignore,” said Brad Fawver, a research scientist at institute’s Army Medical Research Directorate-West.

Fawver is leading the Brain-Physical Optimization Conditioning research program, which uses mind-body training to build soldiers’ resilience. One method the team is testing is brain endurance training, where soldiers perform mentally demanding tasks, such as recalling a certain sequence, before, during or after strenuous exercise. 

Researchers tested a volunteer group of service members over a six-week period, where half the group did low to moderate difficulty memory tasks while the other half of the group performed a very easy memory task while doing the same exercise. 

They found that volunteers given the low- to moderate-demand memory tasks during training “displayed twice the improvement in endurance performance and twice the reduction [in] perceptions of exertion” compared with the other group, according to an Army news release. 

The team was “floored by the results,” Fawver said. “Some very physically fit soldiers were running five to 15 minutes longer on a test that they previously ran to complete failure just six weeks prior,” he said. “This gives us the confidence to evaluate more complex and challenging training approaches.”

In the future, the team is considering using its approach with high-intensity interval and circuit training exercises, which more closely mimic the Army Combat Fitness Test. 

Adopting the program’s training approach could make soldiers more resilient, which “will produce warfighters that are much more resistant to things like anxiety, physical stress and … other operational demands that get placed on them in deployed environments,” Fawver said. 

As the team continues its research, team members hope to develop cognitive training that is tailored to soldiers’ individual needs and goals, Fawver said. 

“[We’re] finally starting to see more studies corroborating the effects of these integrated interventions,” he said. “We’re excited about where this research will take us, but the challenge is to create something truly innovative and impactful for service members’ brain health and performance. They’ll always be our chief focus.”