Here's something you can sink your teeth into: Chewing--whether it's gum, sunflower seeds, or a mouth guard--improves your reaction time and alertness, and so could take your athletic performance to the next level, finds new research published in Brain and Cognition.
A team of Japanese researchers asked 17 people to watch a video screen and react to visual cues by pressing handheld triggers. Each person completed the experiment multiple times--sometimes while chewing gum, and other times empty-mouthed.
The results? Chomping on gum improved the participants' reaction time by 7 percent, or an average of 36 milliseconds. That may not sound like much, but consider this: A baseball takes less than half of 1 second to travel from a pitcher's hand to the catcher's mitt. In many sports, milliseconds are the difference between good players and great ones.
When you chew, your jaw muscles stimulate certain regions of your brain, including the premotor cortex, explains study author Yoshiyuki Hirano, Ph.D., of Japan's Chiba University. And stimulating that cortex appears to prepare your brain for movement and reaction, both of which contribute to better motor performance, Hirano adds. Past research has also shown that chewing can boost your brainpower by elevating your heart rate and improving blood flow.
Hirano says it only take 10 seconds of chewing to activate the brain regions responsible for improved performance. So next time you step up to the plate--or on to the court or field--make sure your chompers are already in gear. The boost in reaction time will last 15 minutes after you stop chewing, Hirano says. For more ways to improve your performance and get in shape, check out the 100 Best Fitness Tips of All Time.