Physiologist and president of The Wells Performance Group, author of the bestsellers Superbodies, The Ripple Effect and The Focus Effect.
Though body and mind are typically thought of as being separate, it’s helpful to consider them as a unit because they work together. For your mind to be engaged, your body needs to be energized.
There is a growing body of research showing that physical activity improves brain function and facilitates learning, creativity and problem-solving, among other key functions. Even simple movements such as walking get you physically energized and open up the possibility of creating beta-wave activity in the brain, which is reflective of the brain state you need to be in if you have to work at a task or perform an action that requires your concentration.
- Exercise has been shown to improve mental tasks to such a degree that one study found exercising before class improved children’s math scores by one whole grade (e.g. from a B to an A).
- This improvement in cognitive ability is associated with structural changes in the brain. Research has shown that people who exercise regularly experience an improvement in regions of the brain responsible for attention control, cognitive control and response resolution.
- Doing light exercise such as walking has been shown to improve creativity, boost energy levels and enhance various aspects of mental performance.
As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”
Steve Jobs famously believed as much. I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of the Apple co-founder and was really struck by the idea of never doing a meeting sitting down. Jobs would take people on a walk around the Apple campus rather than sit at a meeting table. It was in moving meetings that he and his team came up with the ideas for the iPod, iPhone and iPad.
If you think about our traditional approach to work, we are doing exactly the opposite. We sit down, our brains shut off, and then we think, learn, create and analyze. If you have ever sat down all day working on a project, you’ve experienced the effect of your brain not working optimally. Your brain just can’t function at a high level without some physical activity. When you sit for long stretches of time, you impair your brain’s capacity.
What your brain needs for optimal functioning is a mix of movement and mental activation. In particular, you can keep your brain alert and energized by giving your body a steady stream of micromovements throughout the day.
Here’s a little experiment I did that illustrates my point. It’s one you can try, especially if you have a Fitbit, Apple Watch or other wearable device to track your activity.
One day, I did a morning workout and then sat at my desk for the entire workday. When I got home, I was exhausted. I could hardly function. I was not a good parent or partner. I was a zombie.
The next day, I got up and did just a bit of exercise. Then, instead of sitting at my desk all day, I sprinkled in short bursts of physical activity – a little Warrior Pose, 20 air squats, some wrist curls. Micromovements.
I felt fantastic all day. And when I got home at night, I wasn’t stressed and had loads of energy for my family. I didn’t burn as many calories, but my life was 10 times better.
Think of it as microdosing – on movement, not hallucinogens. You will find it makes a huge difference to your attention, creativity and execution.
As little as 15 minutes of exercise improves mental performance, so add this to your day before important tasks that you have to do. If you have an important thinking-related task to do during the day – for example a presentation, a major meeting or an exam – try to take a few minutes to do some light exercise before the event.
If you need to solve a problem, block off some time to get focused and make sure that you walk, stretch or lift some weights in the hour before you settle in to take on the challenge.
Exercise will increase the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the brain and improve your mental performance. It might seem like you’re taking too much time away from the task, but the physiology says that you’ll perform better and get healthier at the same time.
Try these protocols during the workday and see how they help you get more done more easily. Let me know how it worked for you via my website www.drgregwells.com, on Twitter @drgregwells or on LinkedIn.
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