Self-care forms an intrinsic part of self-leadership, resilience and ultimately, high performance. Just like the oxygen mask analogy on a plane, we can’t look after others until we look after ourselves, and as leaders and role models in our business, it’s important to walk our talk and set the best examples.
We all know that exercise is good for us. It helps with weight management, cardiovascular health, cognitive age decline prevention and keeping diabetes at bay.
What we want to share with you, however, are findings from neuroscience about the lesser-known benefits that exercise has on your amazing brain and how this can impact your overall performance.
1 Fact – Exercise Changes your Brain!
Numerous studies have shown that people who exercise regularly show changes in their brains that include:-
- a larger hippocampus – the seat of memory
- neurogenesis – the creation and growth of new neurons and neural pathways
- the production of growth factors and various beneficial neurotransmitters
Exercise improves your memory, cognitive skills, reduces stress, enhances mood, improves sleep and can prevent you getting dementia!
Let’s look at these findings in more detail and what type of exercise you can best benefit from.
1. Exercise makes you more Intelligent! Studies from the Universities of Western Sydney (Aus) and Manchester (UK) showed an increase in 2 areas of the brain (hippocampus and prefrontal cortex) that improved memory recall, abstract reasoning and higher order thinking e.g. the ability to solve complex problems, remain focused and make decisions.
Exercise stimulates the production of a very aptly named brain protein called Noggin (we’re not joking!) and this protein initiates the production of neurogenesis and stem cells.
2. When we exercise, we produce Fertiliser for our Brain! Aerobic exercise of the type that increases your heart rate and makes you sweat a little, stimulates the production of BDNF or Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor. BDNF is a protein produced inside our nerve cells which keeps them functioning and growing, and stimulates the growth of new neurons.
BDNF also builds and maintains the brain circuits that keep our neural networks and their signals strong. In addition to BDNF, when we exercise aerobically, we produce IGF or Insulin Growth Factor which reduces our risk of getting diabetes
3. Exercise boosts Resilience. When we exercise, we release endorphins, our body’s natural pain killers and mood enhancers (which is why there is strong evidence that exercise alleviates some types of depression because we release glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, both of which are depleted in people with depression).
In addition to the release of endorphins, exercise reduces our cortisol levels (cortisol is one of our stress hormones) and these 2 things combined leave us more able to cope with mental challenges.
So what type of exercise are we talking about that can provide all these benefits and help us be more active, alert and attentive at work?
4 Tips for Building your Brawn to Boost your Brain
True enjoyment comes from activity of the mind and exercise of the body. The two are ever united.
Wihelm von Humboldt
1. Shake it out and Boogie! Yes, dancing is a great form of exercise to boost the health of our brain. Not only is it the physical impact but also the social connection and the cognitive benefits of learning as we try to understand new moves and remember steps. Anne is a Salsa lover and Clare regularly does Zumba.
When Clare worked in sales, each team member did the happy dance when a sale was made and there would often be a team boogie on a Friday afternoon!
2. Get a good HIIT! High Intensity Interval Training, according to the American College of Sports Medicine, is ‘repeated bouts of high intensity followed by a bout of recovery’. These include exercises that you typically perform at 80 to 95% of your maximum heart rate, for anywhere from five seconds to eight, so if you’re strapped for time this is very good news.
In addition to all the benefits we have already mentioned, HIIT also reduces fat – both abdominal and the deep, visceral kind that engulfs your inner organs.
3. Go for a Walk. Research from NMHU identified that the foot’s impact during walking sends pressure waves through the arteries that significantly modify and can increase the supply of blood to the brain.
Research at Stanford University showed that walking around the Campus boosted creativity and we can both vouch for the fact that walking in nature boosts our creative thinking and definitely lifts our mood.
4. Just Move! If you’re the “You’re not getting me doing that HIIT stuff” type, then doing something is always better than doing nothing. Consider Yoga or Tai-chi, the Chinese martial art that combines a series of flowing movements, with a high degree of focus and attention paid to breathing deeply. Tai-chi can improve balance control, fitness, and flexibility, and has become a means of alleviating stress and anxiety, a form of ‘meditation in motion’.
At work, find ways to avoid sitting for long periods of time; try a stand up desk (which Anne and Clare both use), stand up meetings and walk during breaks (always take breaks, it’s a false economy for productivity not to).
When we sit for long periods of time, we are at risk of developing gluteal amnesia or ‘Dead Butt Syndrome’ (again, we’re not joking!), a condition that occurs when your gluteus medius gets inflamed and forgets to function normally. We also restrict blood flow to the brain which impacts our ability to stay focused and attentive.
As humans we are designed to be moving beings, from hunting and gathering to ploughing and planting. The risks of staying sedentary are well publicised – heart disease, diabetes, joint inflammation, back, neck and shoulder pain, poor quality sleep and lethargy which can lead to a loss of meaning or even depression.
It’s time to get going! Good luck – try some new things out at work and let us know your success stories.