Learn The Right Moves For A Better Brain
We all know that exercise is good for us. After all, we’ve heard that the right kinds of exercise can improve heart health as well as decrease our risk of many types of diseases. And that alone should probably be enough to motivate us to move a little bit more. But now there’s yet another reason: researchers have found that exercise has cognitive benefits. So if you want to be able to think more clearly, have a better mood, and be more creative, getting out for a stroll could be just the thing.
What Researchers Found
Much of the recent research demonstrating the cognitive benefits of exercise have been done in the workplace. However, the findings extend well beyond the office or factory and include all of us all the time. The bottom line is that when we move regularly in smart and healthy ways, we feel better, we work smarter, and we perform better in all areas of our lives.
One such study was conducted at Stanford University. Researchers there were interested in knowing what the benefits of exercise might be specifically for older adults rather than just the young whippersnappers. The participants in the study number 144, and they aged from 19 to 93, with the younger participants serving as a control group.
The participants were tested for cognitive performance and mood, among other things every day, whether they exercised or not. If they exercised they were tested before and after exercising. What the researchers found was that exercise consistently produced the following benefits in all age groups: better memory, improved learning, increased creativity, better concentration, and reduced stress.
Another recent, relevant study conducted in the UK found that employees consistently reported better performance, better interactions with co-workers, and greater satisfaction on days when they exercised in the middle of the day.
In any case, it seems that the optimal benefits are had from daytime exercise. The UK study found that the benefits were greatest when exercise was done in the middle of the day whereas exercise at other times (such as in the evening) conferred fewer benefits. Other studies have found that late night exercise can potentially interfere with sleep. So if possible, the best is to get in some exercise in the middle of the day such as during a lunch break. Even a 20 minute walk can be beneficial.
The Best Types of Exercise
Any type of exercise can produce benefits. You don’t need to run a couple of miles or sweat it out in a 90s-inspired aerobics class. In fact, those types of exercise might even have long term negative consequences when compared to other, smarter types of exercise. It turns out that even light walking can afford the same benefits as more vigorous exercise without the potential negative consequences of poorly designed exercise.
One of the ways in which exercise can produce benefits is by helping to regulate hormones. The right kinds of exercise will produce hormonal balance in your body, leading to greater cognition and mood. The right kinds of exercise are those that are either low intensity (such as walking) or high intensity of short duration.
Exercises that are high or moderate intensity yet sustained for a long time (greater than half an hour) can actually upset the balance of hormones, elevating stress hormones that oppose testosterone and other key hormones that you want more of. So some examples of potentially harmful types of exercise in the long term include long distance running, sustained high intensity cycling, and even extended weight lifting sessions.
Better types of exercise include low intensity exercise such as walking or short duration, high intensity exercise. In the high intensity category things like weightlifting and sprints are included. However, the key is that they should be done in a focused, high intensity fashion with adequate rest between intervals or sets and for no longer than half an hour.
Group sports are often an excellent way to get in some good exercise. For example, playing something like soccer, basketball, or tennis for half an hour during a lunch break could be a great way to get in some healthy, cognition-enhancing exercise.
Remember also that rest is as important as exercise. Don’t make the mistake of trying to exercise every day unless you are doing something low intensity like walking. But if you are doing something of moderate to high intensity, you can easily burn yourself out by trying to exercise too often. Do high intensity exercise only a few times per week, and on the other days, take a short walk to get the cognitive enhancing benefits on those days.
Making It Last
Of course, one of the troubles with exercise is that you have to actually do it for it to be effective. Although many of us know about the benefits - now including the cognitive benefits - the truth is that many of us simply don’t prioritize exercise. Since many of us don’t do it, we can’t expect to reap the benefits.
In order to benefit from exercise we need to find ways to incorporate exercise into our lives in a way that is enjoyable and sustainable. We need to make use of insights into human psychology to set ourselves up for success rather than failure.
Research and our own experiences have shown us time and time again that no matter how much we know that we should do something, we won’t do it if it’s not actually enjoyable. And furthermore, if we don’t have some “skin in the game”, some investment into the activity, we’re also less likely to continue to do it in the long term.
The first, most sensible thing to do when beginning to incorporate exercise into our lives is to select things that are actually enjoyable to us. If you don’t like running sprints, it would be foolish to choose that as the form of exercise that you will try to do. So think of activities that you might actually enjoy. What do you like to do? Do you like lifting weights? Do you like playing tennis? Do you like talking a walk and enjoying the sights? Maybe you enjoy yoga. Or maybe you enjoy martial arts. Find things that seem like fun to you. That way you’ll be setting yourself up for success.
When it comes to getting invested in the activity, it helps to identify a way to progress or improve in the activity. For example, if you join a martial art course, you may have as a goal to earn higher degrees of mastery. If you lift weights then you can challenge yourself to reach new and heavier goals. If you play tennis, making it competitive can help you to remain invested in the challenge.
And finally, having a group of people - even if only one more person - who can share in the activity with you can increase the likelihood of you continuing to do it. Find people who want to do the same activities, and do them together. If you go to a class or a gym, find a group of people who will do it with you. Don’t rely on the social nature of classes to motivate you. Form your own group of people who know one another and count on one another to show up.
And remember that you can always start wherever you are. Even if you can’t find time for half an hour of exercise in the middle of the day, you can at least take a ten minute walk, which will get you in the game.
What are you waiting for? Get started today and you can start reaping the benefits immediately.