Sounds like the ominous beginning to a self-help book, but there is more truth to the title that what you may think. There are plenty of studies out there that suggest the positive benefits of brain training, often suggesting that doing cross-words and memorising long lists is a good way to get yourself thinking smarter, faster. However, this is like saying that simply doing curls with a dumb-bell will make you an Olympic athlete. It’s not purely the muscle fitness that matters, it’s the whole package, so aerobic fitness, endurance, stamina you name it – all have a part to play in what finally comes together in an explosive meter sprint for the finish line. Same with your brain.
Or put more precisely, of course intellectual stimulus helps develop your brain, but so does physical training. In fact, research published from Harvard Business Review onwards, suggests that if we want to increase our mental capacity, we have to increase our physical fitness to match. This, because the brain like any other muscle in our body depends on blood flow to do its thing and the higher your metabolism and ability to sustain physical exercise at an beyond your aerobic threshold, the better ‘oiled’ is the machine to deliver continuously on what makes all of us smarter – learning.
It’s hard to learn anything when you are tired, it’s even harder when you are stressed and learning is what allows your brain to build more connections between neurons, which can potentially fire and give you ideas, helping you be more creative, think faster or even just make the right decision ahead of the wrong one. Worst of all, many of the high pressure jobs out there today requiring continuously operating at stress-levels, make learning all but impossible, so cycles of burn-out are not uncommon. We work hard, feel under pressure to do things better, smarter, faster so we get stressed, making it harder for us to learn how to do things differently, so we then get frustrated, which of course makes us even more stressed… you know the drill.
Interestingly, it is not all out of our hands however. There is a way of being methodical about it all and making it possible for you to prime yourself for some very steep learning curves, perhaps radical career changes even or new jobs in other companies where the mix of the familiar to the new is radically turned on its head and you have to spend most of your time learning, before you can become productive. This is crunch-time for many of us. Can we not just make the transition, learn what is necessary for us to deliver on the job, but also ensure we keep learning to make sure we stay ahead and begin not just doing the usual but increasingly the extra-ordinary?
Research suggests that balancing our increasingly busy work lives with some well-developed and above all challenging exercise can help us do just that.
From bikeradar A recent study from Illinois, USA gives further evidence that exercise can augment brain power.
110 students researchers looked at a battery of fitness criteria (eg
endurance run, push-ups, body mass index, etc) then selected the low
and high scoring subjects to represent low and high fitness students
All subjects were also assessed for IQ, visual cognitive
speed by presenting randomly arranged pictures and activity.
Additionally they were wired up to an electroencephalogram to measure
brain activity across various regions of the skull. This allowed
researchers to look at how fitness levels related to brain function.
Their conclusion is very telling: “We found that aerobic fitness was
positively associated with neuroelectric function and behavioural
performance in preadolescent children engaged in a stimulus
Put more simply: fit children have better functioning brains.
research makes promotion of active pastimes and sports something we
older humans should be engaged in for the well being of younger
generations and it’s good for you at any stage of life too. Research on
elderly subjects from 70 to 90 suggests that walking alone “is
associated with a reduced risk of dementia” . Across most age groups
it appears that exercise of even a modest amount helps to keep the
brain functioning better.
The bottom line is you don’t need to
break 20 minutes for 10-miles or win a Grand Tour to gain positive
mental health benefits from exercise. As Max Ehrmann wrote in his 1927
Desiderata: “Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself”.
And this is the point exactly, to improve fitness – not accelerate your burnout. I can personally attest to both greater learning capacity and ability to sustain higher workloads since I started a regime of road cycle training. I have gone from 30km nearly finishing me off to losing over 10kg and riding 140km the other weekend at a pace many of my fellow riders had to work hard to keep up with. This is progress for sure, but what it really has helped me do is be the reset-button to hard work, crazy travel, lots of pressure and make sure I stop, get out there, blast around the country-side getting rid of adrenaline and all those nasty stress hormones that make us sleep badly, gain weight and over time get depressed. Instead, by finding an outlet that works I am happier and have made greater leaps and bounds in terms of progress in everything I do, because as the quote goes in Starwars – it brings balance to the force.