Cognition 101

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Think about the things you do as spending cognitive calories. How many cognitive calories do you spend on what and why? Are you effectively managing your cognitive calories? 

Mental fatigue and neural fatigue are very real, and can have an effect on physical fatigue as well. Wouldn’t it be great if we could program our day and our workouts so that we’re considering the management of this mental energy?

What is Cognition

Cognition is all the mental processes and executive functions that include things like working memory, decision making, judgment, planning and organization. It also includes things like creativity and social interaction. It’s basically how we interact with others and the world around us.

When you experience problems like being unable to think clearly, plan or organize, it could be because your processing speed is low, your memory is off, or your attentional resources or sub-optimal, which can sometimes translate into attentional issues like ADHD or ADD. 

These are all part of common cognitive issues that we face day-to-day due to highly distractible environments, negatively altered circadian rhythms, and unhealthy habits.

How Does this Apply to the Health Coach

Our clients are in the real world, using their brains just like we are. We need to empower them to be able to train these processes so that they can be successful in whatever they are trying to accomplish in their lives. Think of functional training not just for the body, but for the brain as well. Therefore while in the gym, we have an opportunity to train our clients to prepare for the outside world mentally, not just physically. 

For example, have you ever felt crappy because you didn’t get adequate sleep, ate an unhealthy diet, didn’t exercise, had too much screen time, experienced a lot of stress, and didn’t have much social support? 

If you have (we all have), then you understand why this stuff can be applicable to you and your clients.

Has this been addressed in the personal trainer health coaching framework? Sort of… We know that exercise and nutrition helps with those issues, but maybe we haven’t addressed it from the right perspective and this is why it’s important to understand cognition.

Why is Cognition Important for Your Clients

We really want to focus on exercise and how we can engage the brain during movement intentionally and with precision. Just like we would do with an anatomical structure, we can go from local to global cognitive processes to assess and train certain aspects of the brain. 

If our client is someone with pain, immobility, or lack of stability, we can address that. Similarly, we should be able to take that same approach with the brain. 

Unfortunately, we don’t have the knowledge, structure, or the strategies to do so. So in order to make that deep transformational change and connection with your clients that you need to have, we need to understand the brain.

Executive Functioning

Executive functioning is a term you need to be familiar with simply because if we’re going to create this conversation, we need to bridge the terminology between the practical aspects of what we do and the research. This term comes up in the research frequently.

This term includes a lot of the cognitive processes I’ve already talked about, but also some other processes.


Activation includes organizing tasks and materials, estimating time, prioritizing tasks, and initiating tasks typically associated with work. Activation is most noticeably affected by sleep, hydration, and light exposure. Just as it is critical to activate muscles of the body, the same rings true for this aspect of executive function.


Can you focus and pay attention at the task at hand? How productive are you? Focus is critical in today’s day and age, and typically revolves around the skills of sustaining and shifting focus, as well as filtering out distractions.


Effort involves regulating alertness, sustaining effort on tasks or exercises over time, and processing speed. Good effort in terms of executive function is truly the opposite of lethargy. However, “healthy” effort abilities includes the ability to shut off the mind when it is time to rest (i.e. racing thoughts while trying to go to sleep).


How great could it be if we had the individual tool sets and the coaching skill sets to be able to help people with emotional regulation. In the context of executive function, emotional regulation includes the ability to manage frustration, modulate emotions, and manage anger, worry, disappointment, desire, and many others.

A lot of people drop off of training programs because of lack of emotional regulation or lack of behavioral adherence. If you understand this and you can predict it, you can coach your client to prepare for that type of scenario.

This allows you to keep them active for their entire life. You may not be their only trainer, but you’ve empowered them with the tools to navigate health and fitness across the lifespan. Most trainers don’t engage that conversation of regulating emotions. Learning how to regulate emotions is a huge part of cognitive function.


While there are many different types of memory, the overall purpose of it in executive function is to utilize working memory (the limited and temporary holding of information for processing) and accessing recall. Typically, short-term and long-term memory are the umbrella categories.


Action is not typically discussed in the common cognitive conversation, but it involves self-monitoring and the regulation of self-action. Issues with action can include impulsivity in words or actions, jumping to inaccurate conclusions, social puzzlement, and managing the speed of processing needed for certain tasks (either slowing down or speeding up).