Cardiovascular exercise comes in two flavors: mindless and mindful. Why not layer cognitive tasks into your class design to train the brain as well as the body? Help participants meet the rigors of everyday life by adding mental challenges that also enhance balance, reaction time and agility.


Class Details

Total Time: 45 minutes
Format: low-impact cardio
Equipment Needed: none, except a positive attitude
Music: 115-135 beats per minute (depending on abilities)

Warm-Up (7-10 minutes)

Establish the movements. Keep things simple. Introduce four movements, one at a time. Perform 32 counts of an exercise before going on to the next one. Label each move with a number. For example:

  • march in place: move #1
  • step-touch: move #2
  • knee lift: move #3
  • hamstring curl: move #4

Embed the numbers. After establishing the movements, cue by number, not by name. When you say, “Number one,” for example, march in place for 16 counts. Next, call out, “Number two,” and then perform step-touch for 16 counts, and so on. Once everyone has learnt the movements and their numbers, cue by number in random order for a few sets. Switching it up adds another layer, challenging participants to think about what they’re doing rather than just passively following your lead. Reduce the number of reps as participants demonstrate proficiency, working down to 8 counts of each move.

Introduce the walls. Assign a number to each wall. The front wall is #1, the right wall is #2, the back wall is #3, and the left wall is #4.

Cardio Training (20-30 minutes)

Below are just a few strategies you can use to give students a mental challenge.

Layer the moves to the walls. When you call out, “Number one,” participants march in place (move #1) while facing the front wall (#1). When you cue, “Number two,” they turn to the right wall (#2) and perform step-touch (move #2). “Number three” means they face the back wall (#3) and change to the knee lift (move #3). And “Number four” cues them to turn to the last wall (#4) and perform the hamstring curl (move #4).

As you cue by numbers, not only do participants change movements but they change orientations to face the corresponding wall. They have to think about which way to face and which move to do. Use numerical reduction: 32, 16 and then 8 reps. After performing in numerical order, switch it up by calling numbers in random order. Are neurons getting exercised? Who needs complexity when the ability to make quick directional changes is more beneficial?

One movement, with travel. Bring everyone back to “Number one,” marching in place, facing front. Add travel–walking forward and back, 4 counts each. Repeat several times. Instruct participants to march in place again.

Split the room. Divide class in half. Instruct the left (L) half to continue to march in place. Instruct the right (R) half to prepare to walk forward and back, 4 counts each direction. When ready, cue the R half to begin doing this. The R half continues walking forward and back as you prepare to direct the L half of the room.

Create a zigzag. As the R half walks backwards, cue the L half to walk forward, creating a zigzag effect. The locomotor movement has not changed, but you’ve created a different dynamic by splitting the room and staggering the walks.

Add a push-pull. As the zigzag walk continues, change orientation by asking everyone to take smaller steps, covering less space, as they prepare to turn slowly and face the opposite group. Each group continues moving forward and backwards until they have gradually turned 90 degrees toward the center of the room and are facing the other line. Once everyone catches on, you have a push-pull effect–one group walking forward toward the other group (which is backing up). Switch directions.

For several more examples of how to add mental challenges to your cardio class, please see “Sample Class: Think With Your Heart” in the online IDEA Library or in the June 2012 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.