Pondering on the Physical and Mental Demands of Sports, Games and Exercise: An Overly Simplistic Approach

Sten Remmelg
7 min readApr 26, 2021

I invite you to follow along my thoughts on categorizing Sports, Games and Exercise activities based on their physical- and mental demands. So without further ado, lets get cracking

An accurate representation of how I get stuff done. Source: https://media.giphy.com/media/ule4vhcY1xEKQ/giphy.gif

Where do we start. I propose a very simple scoring model, by making thoughtful guessing, lets give the physical- and mental demands a score, in a scale of low, medium and high. We can do this by building a simple table, that looks something like this

     Activity      Physical Demand   Mental Demand  
---------------- ----------------- ---------------
??? ??? ???

Examples with clear differences in Mental Demands

Well, where could we start with this simple rating system. It feels easier to write down some extreme cases. Take Chess for example, where the players are sitting down and thinking a lot. So the physical demands are low and mental demands are high. Lets add that to our table.

     Activity      Physical Demand   Mental Demand  
---------------- ----------------- ---------------
Chess Low High

And if we compare Chess to Checkers, then we could say that since Checkers has less variety in the amount of moves and positions that can come up in the game, it is less demanding mentally.

     Activity      Physical Demand   Mental Demand  
---------------- ----------------- ---------------
Chess Low High
Checkers Low Medium

Take away the thinking and we have just sitting, with low demands on both. Ignoring the fact that sitting and trying to meditate can be very demanding.

     Activity      Physical Demand   Mental Demand  
---------------- ----------------- ---------------
Chess Low High
Checkers Low Medium
Sitting Low Low
Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash

Examples with clear differences in Physical Demand

Now, if we climb up the physical demand scale. Jogging is more physically demanding than sitting, but less demanding than a 100m dash. So lets score jogging “medium” and 100m dash “high” on the Physical Demand scale.

     Activity      Physical Demand   Mental Demand  
---------------- ----------------- ---------------
Chess Low High
Checkers Low Medium
Sitting Low Low
Jogging Medium ?
100m Dash High ?

But what about the mental demand for those two. I would argue that jogging still requires “low” mental effort. I find jogging a great activity to listen to books and podcasts. It even feels better to go jogging or walking to listen instead of just sit in one place. Sprinting fast in a 100m dash however, does not leave as much room for thinking. So lets score it “medium” to leave some room for an even more demanding activity.

     Activity      Physical Demand   Mental Demand  
---------------- ----------------- ---------------
Chess Low High
Checkers Low Medium
Sitting Low Low
Jogging Medium Low
100m Dash High Medium

How does our table look now? Does it make sense? Well, if we look at subsets of the table. Like Chess-Checkers-Sittings, it makes sense. Sitting-Jogging-100m dash also looks fine. But notice, how both Checkers and 100m dash now have the same score for Mental Demand.

     Activity      Physical Demand   Mental Demand  
---------------- ----------------- ---------------
Chess Low High
Checkers Low Medium
Sitting Low Low
Jogging Medium Low
100m Dash High Medium

The score is the same, but is the Mental Demand the same? Well, it would be difficult to argue for them being the same kind of demand. In Checkers, we have to do strategic planning, think about tactics. While in a 100m dash, we focus our effort to our muscles and joints to produce more force. So we have uncovered a limitation of our simple scoring model. We can’t differentiate between different types of Mental Demand.

What if we take an extreme example of running, an Ultramarathon, where the participants run extremely long distances, 100km, 1000km or even more. It would be hard to say that the Mental Demand is as low as for Jogging or even running a 100m dash. In such a long event that can take multiple days, one constantly has to battle the feeling of wanting to quit and push forward. As opposed to a 100m dash, which is over soon anyway, so whatever pain one endures, does not last as long. So from this perspective, it would make sense to put the mental demand as “high”.

     Activity      Physical Demand   Mental Demand  
---------------- ----------------- ---------------
Chess Low High
Checkers Low Medium
Sitting Low Low
Jogging Medium Low
100m Dash High Medium
Ultramarathon High High

Now we get a similar situation on the Mental Demand spectrum, Chess also has score “high” just like Ultramarathon, while the type of mental effort is a lot different. With the former, one focuses on enduring trough pain and the with the latter, one cranks they brain to come up with good moves to win the game.

The land of unknowns

Lets add some more sports to the list. Team sports, for example Basketball, martial arts like Judo and individual sports like Gymnastics. To perform well a great level of fitness and athleticism is a requirement. Therefore, scoring Physical Demand “high” makes sense for these.

     Activity      Physical Demand   Mental Demand  
---------------- ----------------- ---------------
Chess Low High
Checkers Low Medium
Sitting Low Low
Jogging Medium Low
100m Dash High Medium
Ultramarathon High High
Gymnastics High ?
Judo High ?
Basketball High ?

And for the Mental Demand, lets start with Gymnastics. A gymnast definitely needs an extreme level of focus to perform the amazing and at the same time dangerous skills. The body has to coordinate a lot of high power movements, within very tight time bounds. Sounds like a lot, lets score it “high”.

In Judo, one does not only have to coordinate ones own body, but also understand and account for what the opponent is doing. We get more into the strategic and tactical type of mental demands in addition to the physical. Also feels to deserve “high” as the Mental Demand score.

An last but not the least, Basketball. Like in many team sports. The players have to be physically fit and coordinate their own bodies, as well as be aware of what the opponents as well as team mates are doing. So arguing that Basketball has a lesser Mental Demand than the former is a hard sell. Lets complete our table.

     Activity      Physical Demand   Mental Demand  
---------------- ----------------- ---------------
Chess Low High
Checkers Low Medium
Sitting Low Low
Jogging Medium Low
100m Dash High Medium
Ultramarathon High High
Gymnastics High High
Judo High High
Basketball High High

Now as we have a bunch of sports, activities and games in our table, what could we learn from it. Well, we started off pretty good. Our simple model provided some clear differences and allowed us to compare activities that are somewhat similar. But with a diverse set of activities, what did we get. Look at the last four rows, they all have the same values.

Activity      Physical Demand   Mental Demand  
---------------- ----------------- ---------------
Chess Low High
Checkers Low Medium
Sitting Low Low
Jogging Medium Low
100m Dash High Medium
Ultramarathon High High
Gymnastics High High
Judo High High
Basketball High High

If we would take our simple model as truth, then this is telling us, that in regards to Physical- and Mental Demand, those four sports are the same. But again that is a hard point to argue for. Not only do the Mental Demands have different characteristics, but so do the Physical Demands. This realization, uncovers great limitations with this simple scoring model.

Photo by Juan Rumimpunu on Unsplash

Could we do better?

We have found that this simple approach has very limited usefulness. Nevertheless, it could be used to answer simple questions. Take a situation, where one feels physically tired and instead of going sprinting could choose to go jogging instead. Or if one feels a need some light mental stimulus, they could opt for activities with “medium” score for the Mental Demand.

Although it is true, that these questions hardly require any framework or methodology to uncover. I would argue that starting simple is helpful, if one wishes to uncover more profound ideas. Keeping that in mind, what could the next steps be to create a more sophisticated system to differentiate activities in the realm of Physical- and Mental Demand. Lets summarize some limitations that popped up

  1. Different aspects of Physical- and Mental Demands are not captured
  2. Three levels of scores do not allow to capture detailed differences
  3. An educated guess by a single individual is very subjective and biased.

Approaches for improvement could then be to research and define the main types of Physical Demand that different activities can pose, like endurance, strength, power etc. The same goes for Mental Demands. Each individual demand type could then be subsequently scored.

For the second point, an incremental improvement could be to score the demands on a scale of 1–10 and allow for decimals, like a score of 5.5.

To reduce the bias of one individual, we could gather scores from a number of experts. We could go even further and utilize measurements of physiological and mental effort in these activities. With the use of our experts we could then define criterion to then convert all the input data to scores in the new categories.

Photo by Vincentiu Solomon on Unsplash

Time to wrap up

So there we have it. An overly simplistic approach to categorizing activities based on their Physical- and Mental Demands, together with some thoughts for improvements.

If you made it this far, then I would assume these topics are also of interest to you. I would love to hear about cool research in the area. If you know any, reach out and let me, don’t be a stingy.

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