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4 Increasing the Efficacy of our Executive Functioning Systems

At this point, we have been over what it means to use our words for good and if we were not already aware, we are now as to how much power words have in influencing the health and wellbeing of our relationships with others, our surroundings, and ourselves. Believe it or not our words are connected to our actions, and the connections that each of us makes on a daily basis between our words and our actions are what play a great role in creating our unique self-identities. This connection is not as simple as it might seem. In fact, a large part of this connection has to do with movement and how movement affects cognition through executive function. What I mean by movement might excite some of you and scare others. There is no need to panic, if it excites you that is wonderful but if it is something you have a difficult relationship with, we will work through it together. In this case, I am referring to movement as physical activity. Physical activity and the way in which we move our bodies plays an increasingly important role in our self-concept throughout our lifetime and also drives the effectiveness of our executive functioning system.

Let’s begin first by talking about the crucial time period when we most likely began experimenting with our self-concept. Adolescence is a very important time in our lives when we begin the lifelong journey of figuring out who we are. Self-identity isn’t something we figure out overnight, and it can be influenced by many different factors, I’m sure you are aware of this by now. One thing you might not be aware of, however, is how big of a role motor competence –  one’s ability to move proficiently in a range of locomotor, stability, and manipulative skills – can play in identity health starting in adolescents (Timler et al., 2019). Not all of this topic will be relevant to your current circumstances, but it could make sense of things for the past or help understand your children when they reach adolescence, and it is also helpful in understanding the overarching link between movement and its effects on identity and executive functioning. Timler and colleagues found that the relationship between motor competence and identity health is influenced by an individual’s self-perception across multiple domains, these domains including scholastic competence, social competence, athletic competence, physical appearance, romantic appeal, behavioral conduct, close friendships, and global self-worth (2019). Findings suggest that those with lower motor competence had a more negative association with their self-perception, and close relationships with others were a domain very important to this group. Those with low motor competence who had a higher self-perception in the area of close friendships had a healthier self-identity, and those with low motor competence who had a lower self-perception in the area of close friendships had a poorer self-identity.

Executive functions play an extremely important role in how we function within our home, work, and school environments. These are the mental functions that allow us to reason and problem solve, understand and concentrate on the information that we read and that we hear, practice control, choice, discipline, creativity, and what gives us the ability to adjust to the changes in information (Diamond, 2014). The effects of being lonely, stressed, sad, and lacking in physical fitness can cause our executive functioning systems to suffer. This can lead to a dreadful cycle, and I think more people than not will say that this has affected them sometime in the past year. Stress has been at an all-time high during the pandemic, whether you are trying to work, attend school, pay the bills, or take care of at-risk family members all while trying to keep yourself and your people safe from the coronavirus. It has been a year unlike any other and has not always been easy to ensure we are working on our physical fitness, being socially supported, and feeling happy and relaxed, which are large factors in increasing the efficacy of our executive functions. Lacking in each of these departments can cause harmful effects to our prefrontal cortex, the place that is responsible for our executive functioning systems. The prefrontal cortex and the skills this brain structure gives rise to– executive functions — improve the most through physical fitness.  There are harmful effects from excluding physical activity from our lives and these effects can include reduced ability to reason and problem-solve, forgetfulness, and makes us less likely to have self-discipline and control.

More likely than not, the school systems that you were brought up through did not necessarily implement the most beneficial activities to improve executive functioning. Dance, music, and play are three keys that have shown to increase executive function and have been implemented to do so in certain school systems (Diamond, 2014). As time has gone on, a lot of play has been taken out of education in order to increase seat time, and play is most certainly not the main focus of a 9-5 job in America. In continuing with George Miller’s imperative of giving psychology away, we can make improvements to the knowledge surrounding executive functioning and what it takes in our daily routines to continue to increase them. Modern research tells us that when physical movements include a challenge to our ability to stay self-organized [think: holding that yoga pose for the full 4 counts] and yet are still enjoyable, our executive functions get a boost. While play might not be part of the 9-5 workday, enjoyable physical activity that challenges our self-regulatory abilities can be worked into your lunch breaks or morning/evening routines.

Thus far, there have been relatively few studies that have been done that include middle-aged adults when investigating the age-related differences in executive functions, and this is a large gap in psychological research. Ferguson, Brunsdon, and Bradford (2021) decided to run a study exploring age-related differences in executive function from late childhood through to old age in order to allow for a more informed understanding of executive functions across the lifespan. The study involved three hundred fifty participants ranging in age from 10-86 years old and required them to take a battery of tests measuring the roles of inhibitory control, working memory, cognitive flexibility, and planning (Ferguson et al., 2021). Results found that there was continued improvement in working memory capacity across adolescence into young adulthood, however, there were declines in both working memory and inhibitory control beginning from as early as age 30-40 and continuing into old age (Ferguson et al., 2021).

Though there haven’t been nearly enough studies done on executive function through middle age, the studies that have been conducted do show a pattern of decline. Much of the literature is focused on the development of executive function rather than maintenance, and that is the main focus of this current project. We need to find ways to charge our mental, social, and physical batteries much more than what most of the current society allows for in our daily lives.

No need to worry just yet, I won’t make you drop down and do twenty burpees to help increase your executive function (unless you really want to, then go for it). If movement is not currently a habit of yours, we will take it step by step to implement some sort of physical activity into your lifestyle for the benefit of your overall well-being. Keeping up with your physical health will be one of the key components of the workbook activities that you can dive into at your own pace if you are interested.

The pandemic has also caused a halt in many of the activities that we may have been previously doing to nourish these three crucial aspects to our health and wellbeing, and it has taken some time to adjust (do not worry if you are still one of the many that are still trying to adjust to it all, it is a process). One thing to keep in mind is just how important executive function and self-efficacy are in one’s ability to self-regulate challenging health behaviors (McAuley et al., 2011). Findings suggest executive function and other elements of self-regulatory capacity influence adherence to exercise behavior in older adults through the mediation of self-efficacy (McAuley et al., 2011). In one study, McAuley and colleagues (2011) came to a conclusion that showed higher levels of executive function and use of self-regulatory strategies at the start of an exercise program enhanced an individual’s beliefs in their capabilities with regard to the exercise program. Self-perceptions involved in our self-identity, levels of executive functioning, and our overall well-being are all tied to each other and can allow us to flourish and grow or struggle and decline. Adele Diamond (2014) encapsulated the aims of this project when she wrote,

Almost any activity that requires focused attention, concentration, and working memory, and that also builds community, exercises the body, and brings joy should be able to serve as the means for disciplining the mind and enhancing the skills needed for success in school and in life.

At this time, I encourage you to take a look at the workbook that has been created from the literature surrounding how to use what we know about our self-memory systems, language, and executive function. The implementation of attainable and measurable activities aims to enhance social, physical, and mental well-being across middle-aged adults. Change, improvement, and goals are not met suddenly and completed in a single day. It takes time and, most importantly, patience. Making adjustments takes time, as I am sure we are all well-aware of given the circumstances regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Be kind and patient with yourself and take each day, each activity at your own pace, and do absolutely everything in your power to ensure that you are living each day not just to make it to the next, but to truly enjoy this beautiful life that we too often let it pass us by.