Exercise is an invention of our contemporary times. Understandably, the Paleolithic people were not taking time out of their daily toil to do more labour.
Yet, despite its unnatural evolution, we as a species have inadvertently accommodated exercise into our routine; And better still, adapted along with its mutations. In the sixties, we worked out our coronary arteries to the beat of synth music, as cardiovascular training was popularised by aerobics inventor Kenneth H. Cooper. In the seventies, we pushed our brute limits with heavy weights, as strength training was glamorised by bodybuilding icons like Schwarzenegger. Most recently, we stripped it back to basics, as self-sufficient training styles like home workouts or calisthenics were seen for their value during COVID lockdowns.
Seeing how dynamic revisions made to the original format are, it might not be so strange to then consider how this idea of a ‘Brain Gym’ could be the future of fitness. And I believe Sparkd is the first of these services.
One of society’s greatest preoccupations is the subject of how we can optimise the mind. It is a thematic obsession in science fiction a la Ex Machina or Ghost in the Shell, a curious genre in which for some reason, we are constantly thinking up self-sabotaging ways to annihilate the human brain and replace it with computer processors. What Brain Gym has to offer is a slice of this future, except it is more benevolent, and less eugenic.
In a Brain Gym like Sparkd, you complement your regular physical training with neuro-based technologies that stimulate your mind while you work out your body. So a typical session would look something like this: You could be doing lunges for sixty seconds while you spell words backwards by touching targets which will light up on this giant digital board called SmartFit.
SmartFit is a tool for what industry people call ‘cognitive motor-training’, which is doing two different tasks simultaneously, one cognitive and one physical. Stimulating the mind while exercising, it is not difficult to want to project yourself into any intense movie transformation sequence where you are the rich and smart Blond maverick pulling off the effortless studying-for-my-SATS-while-on-a-treadmill-so-I-can-be-the-biggest-cutie-in-Harvard-Law look.
‘The ability to sustain and divide your attention while tracking objects does wonders for the brain’, explains Anna Milani, Founder of Sparkd.
With SmartFit, physical trainers can administer all sorts of games like solving math equations, memory puzzles and more. The technology is deceptively simple and profoundly addicting. Naturally competitive people find themselves trying to either compete with other people in the class, unwitting of the fact that they are also working on things like their impulse control, focus, and processing speed and utterly unconscious of the satisfaction they receive that boosts their exercise compliance rates. In other words, the more Brain Health training you do, the less flaky you are about training, period. And a tool like SmartFit is just one element of the expansive repertoire of Brain Gym equipment available in the market.
Another piece in the gym that Anna seems to speak about with particular pride about is a software called the Neurotracker. This is a breakthrough piece of technology that has already been popular among the likes of Stephen Curry for quite some time.
On court, athletes are inundated by external stimuli and are thrown into the athletic fog of war. The Neurotracker simulates this disarray and trains the nervous system to become accustomed to such situations. Some even say that Curry has ‘hacked’ his brain to be able to absorb much more meaning from his sensory inputs than the average person, an almost superhuman facility that has fully-fledged through advanced technologies. We are truly in the future now.
But why Anna is so fond of the Neurotracker has less to do with the fact that Stephen Curry uses it as well, and more to do with the fact that the closest people around her, her husband and her three young children, do. This is the ideal that Anna aspires for the community around her. By gathering research and creating centralised hubs for these technologies, Anna imagines that in five to ten years from now, Brain Health training can become a part of everyone’s fitness regime.
If you are wondering whether Brain Gyms are more for the intellectually precocious teen training for Math Olympiad, or the geriatic seeing early signs of dementia, then you are asking the question that has been on Anna’s mind since the beginning.
Initially, Anna actually conceived Sparkd with her grandfather in mind.
‘My Grandpa was super important to me growing up. He taught me so many things. He built our lakehouse, he built our boat by the lake, he built our treehouse. But one day Grandma told me he got Alzheimer’s. After that, I saw how he changed. I saw him become aggressive at times. We were on the boat one day and he lost it with his friend one day and I thought, oh my god the boat is going to capsize. What was he doing? He was literally losing his mind.’
The memory of her grandfather’s permanent mental decline affected Anna in profound ways. A terrifying incident, she recalls, carved an understanding deep in her that the man who was once indomitable was now brought to obedience by the brutish forces from within and without himself.
‘Grandma couldn’t handle him. Grandpa would wake up 10 times a night to make coffee. He would take his mattress and put it out in the hallway. One time, he got lost in the market. Grandma turned around and he had gone. They live in a small town in Finland and there are a lot of forests there. It does happen that elderly people get lost in the woods during the winter
and people only find their bodies in the springtime after the snow melts. We were worried to death. Hours we could not find him. Eventually though, they found him 10km away from the town because someone spotted him on the side of the road while driving. The police were alerted, helicopters were out…’
Nobody really cares about their brain until it malfunctions. But what if we took a more preventative approach to brain afflictions? This is the proposition that Anna makes. And although, I’m sure Grandpa would have loved something like that, the very nature of prevention means that you have to start way earlier.
The brain stops maturing after twenty-five. Fact.
But that does not mean that the brain stops ever evolving. Ironically, when it comes to the brain, there are more grim and prescriptive hypotheses and little science is actually in favour of a growth mindset. And to be honest, I find that to be simply, a failure of imagination.
To that extent, Anna offers some creative variations to cater to the varying levels of cognitive and fitness ability in people.
The adolescent brain is significantly quicker. There is a marked increase in speed when it comes to pattern recognition and brain movement, which confirms what we know: We don’t really do much thinking before we act. In this regard, Sparkd recommends training targeted at improving impulse control. For instance, the SmartFit Mini can be programmed to administer a type of game. Imagine this: A green smiley face pops up on the screen but you can only tap it when it turns red, and only with your left hand. Sounds simple enough, but when you add a time countdown and some physical exercise commands to an already overstimulated teenage brain, it can be quite discombobulating. As a twenty-something myself, I jerked toward the symbols and second-guessed myself - it was quite the spasmodic sixty seconds.
A lot of life is guesswork, and so is what we feel about it, says Neuroscientist Lisa F. Barrett. Our emotions are speculative responses based on past experiences, and often we are caught in a dreadful pendulum between catastrophising and understatement. This is why, especially in our formative years, impulse control training can do more than just strengthen brain fitness, it may even serve our mental health needs. Could it supplement treatment for eating disorders? Addiction? Trauma? If mental affliction is prison, diagnosis exonerates and training rehabilitates.
The technology is all here. All we need is some imagination to apply it.
The adult brain is purposefully slower. This is to ensure thoughtful decision-making and capacity for long-term planning. Although certain functions will be permanently abandoned (synapses will be pruned!), we may still prepare for a cognitively demanding life. Training can advance spatial awareness (see more!) and input processing (see faster!).
Seniors are at a higher risk to diseases like Alzheimer’s or Dementia. While these ailments are incurable, Brain Health training can slow down decline. Anna gave the example, sometimes you find that walking alongside the elderly, they might stop suddenly just to speak. These dual-tasking facilities, much of it concerning balance, are things we take for granted but can be very cumbersome for the elderly. In these instances, Anna modifies the programme. Instead of lunges, it could be sitting up and down while interacting with SmartFit.
While the results of Brain Health Training can be measured with tools, the most powerful results are felt, more than seen. And the most palpable feeling is a simple shift: you become more aware that you have a brain.
When you realise you have a brain, and that it is responsible for literally everything you do, you suddenly view the world with calming objectivity. You become more lenient with yourself. Why am I feeling so foggy today? Oh, it’s probably because I did not have a good night’s rest. You become more forgiving of others too. Anna enthuses that she can read people’s body language better and faster now, because she knows how to discern what signals from the brain are making people act and feel the way they do with her.
Self-awareness is a phenomenon that is nothing short of a miracle. For most of life we are caught in a self-informing cycle of knowledge and then sometimes, we somehow break out of that circularity. It happens rarely in our development. But just like how one day, a baby’s reality completely shifts when she sees a reflection in the mirror and claims it to be her own, there are unexpected life-changing consequences to having a self-conscious
Anna: It was after I chose to stop dancing. Back then, I was super tired from working a couple of jobs while doing my dance degree. One day, I crashed. I was exhausted. I didn’t want to dance anymore. It was the only thing I did for twenty years but it got me so tired I didn’t want to do it anymore. See I came from a small town in Italy and it was a big thing that I even got into the dance academy in London. I thought it was my purpose. So walking away from it, I lost a sense of self. It was the feeling of achieving your dream and suddenly not being so sure you even wanted it.
Luckily, after limping along for quite some time, I found fitness. It helped me get physically stronger and becoming physically stronger helped me become more confident.
Anna: To be honest, I was not the best dancer. I didn’t even have the interest I thought I did. I started with ballet really young and when you’re that young, you’re sent to ballet because people think it’s becoming of a girl to take up ballet classes. But I couldn’t conform, even with wearing the tutu. I tried going into contemporary dance, where I could be more expressive. But even then, I couldn’t fit into it. It was too philosophical, too abstract. I’m more concrete.
Anna: Yes, I do like to be in-charge. In the dancing world, everything is very unpredictable. You may get a job for three months then get injured and you’re out of commission for the next six months. Then you’re living on beans and toast. And that, really wasn’t for me. I needed something more stable.
Anna: I’ve always wanted to start my own business but for the longest time, I never felt prepared. But I think I got to the point where I’m telling myself, there’s only so much I can study, there’s only so much I can read. And now that I’ve had my three kids, I can focus on my fourth baby - the gym. In a way, it’s because of them that I started my business. People go you have three kids, how can you work? Well, I have to, I’d go insane if I didn’t. Work is easy. Work is in your control, kids are not.
Anna: Of course. For a long time, it was only in the testing stage. I was worried about everything. Was it too early in the market? Are people going to get it? But then I thought, fuck it! Sometimes you just need to not care about what people think. Till now, people ask me, are you sure about all this? And whatever circumstance it may be, I go, yes of course I am sure. If I believe in the difference it will make, it has to be done. So yes I’m sure.
Anna: Yes. motherhood is really cognitively demanding. It’s like trying to have your eyes on everything. I have to say, for all the upset it does to your brain, it really enhances your peripheral vision. To balance everything. I just have to deliberately set aside time for my kids. I have to be fair to them.
There are things I want to impart to my children. I want them to be inquisitive, learn new things by themselves. I want them to be outside. I tell them TV fries their brain. The fact is they don’t listen. I switch off the TV. They have massive meltdowns. Peppa Pig, Paw Patrol. What not.
But most importantly, I find that you have to set aside time for yourself. Do things just for you. So I’m learning the piano now. And I walk the dogs… sometimes. Most of the time, my husband walks them.
One piece of career advice you’d give to your younger self?
Anna: Don’t be so serious. You think that people care about you, but people don’t really give a shit. Don’t worry too much if you’ve done well enough. Have a bit of fun.
For all the innovation that Sparkd’s stands for, I believe that it will take up because of something else: It is so fun. The game element adds to exercise, without compromising on its rigour. Along society’s piquing intrigue toward mental treatment and care, I think Sparkd is shaping up to be an inevitable development as far as gyms go.
Sparkd has opened its first branch, four floors up from Crane’s Kim Yam Address. Crane supports the small businesses and community around it.