We know that exercise is good for us. We know that our body responds to physical stimulation. We know we should be active throughout the day to help keep our bodies in check and not be stuck in a static posture.
But what about our brains? What about the benefits that exercise poses to our productivity – our ability to perform in the workplace or the classroom? There is so much evidential research into this known fact that ‘exercise stimulates brain activity’ and yet many people still don’t see the benefit in taking time out during the day to ‘get active’. In workplaces there is still a culture of being ‘at the desk’ and working longer and more gruelling hours. I believe this to be a detrimental standpoint and a failing of our ethos to not encourage a more diverse and physical capacity in our workforce and work placed behaviour.
So let’s look at some of the basic reasons as to why exercise works for us during the day:
1. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain
2. Exercises enhances glucose and oxygen uptake in your body.
3. Exercise improves cognition
4. Exercise stimulates creative processing
5. Exercise encourages discipline
6. Exercise promotes positive mental health
Exercising has certain physiological benefits. One of them is increased blood flow throughout the body. Circulation of blood to the brain helps to deliver oxygen and nutrients that assist with overall function. Oxygenated blood is vital to ensure that the brain maintains healthy function and keeps all the process’ of the body’s powerhouse in good working order. We know this. We feel this when we exercise. It’s scientific fact.
We know that exercise works our cardiovascular system and makes it more efficient at utilising oxygen and spreading it throughout our body. But the actual uptake of glucose (which we need for energy) and oxygen is ‘improved’ with exercise. At rest, glucose distribution is dependent on insulin to transport it throughout the body. When we exercise, we bypass this insulin dependent transport and actually make better use of glucogen that is stored in other parts of the body, namely the skeletal muscle. Post exercise, our glucose sensitivity and uptake by our skeletal muscles remains elevated for several hours. Thus making our system more sensitive to utilising the glucose present in our bodies. *especially during moderate exercise.
With exercise, oxygen consumption rates are increased up to 20 times that of resting oxygen uptake rates. Through various process’ of vasodilatory conditions, arteriral blood gases and ventilation, the uptake of oxygen by skeletal muscle is increased dramatically during exercise as the body craves more oxygen to function. Various process are stimulated by exercise such as chemical reactions that limit process’ on norepinephrine and blood ph levels. Essentially – the ability of the body to draw more oxygen out of the blood is stimulated by exercise.
The link between exercise and metabolic functions in the body is proven and accepted as writ. In our evolutionary cycle as humans, the importance of movement and ‘foraging’ demanded cognitive function development. We figured out how to do things better and how to develop our brains to make foraging easier. Movement engages energy transactions in the body that also engages the same molecular development involved with cognitive function (ie how our brain adapts). As we became more inclined to the industrial age and less dependant on these functional process’ involved with locomotion and cognitive problem solving, we haven’t stimulated or used those responses associated with movement in our brains as much as what we did when physically active. When we exercise we stimulate metabolic process’. It’s in our genetics to do so. If we don’t exercise or move physically, our bodies begin to present with metabolic issues (such as diabetes, hypertension etc) and this has huge implications on our mental capacity. Those neural pathways that are linked to movement from our earliest days are still present and still present an untapped resource to us if we don’t move or stay physical.
This relates directly to the previous point about keeping neural pathways open and stimulated. Without physical stimulation, there are certain parts of our neural pathways that we aren’t utilising. Our physical dexterity to problem solve and be flexible becomes sluggish if we are not stimulating known pathways via exercise and movement. There is evidence to support that physical stimulation helps to harness creative cognition for up to 2 hours post exercise. Indeed studies have shown direct correlation with increased performance in the widely used Torrance Test (used to measure creative thinking and cognitive flexibility from kindergarten students to adults). Many authors have been known to quote that moderate phsycial exercise helps to relieve writers block or get the ‘juices flowing’. Henry Thoreau is quoted as saying ‘my thoughts began to flow the moment my legs began to move’.
Exercise is a great leveller of routine. You wake up – you get moving. There is a commitment to engaging with physical activity that has a whole routine about it. Forming good habits and habitual behaviour in and of itself can help to create a certain amount of discipline in an individual. Committing to exercise in itself implies a commitment to routine that creates a cycle of disciplined behaviour - ie you commit that at 12:30pm every day you make the effort to go for your daily run. This feeds into your natural behaviour and can encourage more disciplined activity in other arenas of your life. Exercise involves motor involvement of the brain. Habitual processing lies in a different part of the brain than decision making. Thus it is easier to continue habitual behaviour as your brain has it hard wired into the basal ganglia of the brain (area where emotions, patterns and memories are effected). This positive reinforcement will create cycles that can lead to other patterned behaviour such as commitment to work schedules, programs, and goal orientated tasks. The positive reinforcement of the behavious stimulated by exercise creates a desire for other actions to have similar or like minded results - working hard to achieve long term goals. Thus - disciplined behaviour to commit and achieve.
Positive Mental Health
There is no end to the amount of evidence that supports the fact that exercise helps to increase dopamine, serotonin and all manner of endorphins that flood the brain and neural receptors with ‘happy vibes’. These endorphins and neurotransmitters flood the brain with the capacity to feel elation, joy and not only that but to reduce the amount of pain that one feels. This is also the same stuff that is produced in child birth. Mothers know that euphoric feeling of having given birth and this is the flood of hormones that are released in the body after the intense labour of childbirth. These hormones dull pain – they prevent the body from feeling pain by binding to neuron receptors and preventing pain from signals from reaching the brain. The same comes from exercise. This elations is also seen in activities such as ‘runners high’ after a marathon, or even that ‘swimmers zone’ when you feel you can ‘just keep swimming’. I’ve had it myself when performing and being on that knife edge where your body is almost shimmering with elation as you pitch ever step and turn and leap perfectly. It feels like no-one and nothing can touch you or throw you off balance. These are the hormones that are produced from exercise.
There is a lot of support for exercise as a means to battle depression. Primarily because of this element but also because exercise can be a group based activity – where support and interaction with others can help to lift mood and create positive emotional support. We know it works. It’s innately logical to me that movement helps to create positivity. One of the lessons I have learnt from self help gurus and motivational coaches is that when you are mentally exhausted, fatigued or stressed: change your physical. As Taylor Swift sings – SHAKE IT OFF SHAKE IT OFF. Yes folks it is true. ‘Tay tay’ does have something to offer the world! But it makes sense and is so logical, that by stimulating the physical being, you can literally shift your mental state and find that change of mood takes on it’s own life and energy.
So in reality we look at exercise as a way of staying fit and healthy – sometimes as a necessary evil and something that we enjoy doing with friends. But the truth is that there’s a whole lot of good in there for us mentally and behaviourally . It’s a necessary part of living and not just something to endure. As I’ve mentioned (read previous post) I believe that there should be a system in place that harkens back to those days of the early industrial revolution (or English Holiday Camps depending on what image you may like to envisage). In workplaces we should be actively encouraging group exercise not just because it’s the honourable thing to do, but because it improves productivity, harkens group dynamics and promotes optimal, flexible and creative brain function. Stimulation can’t come from sitting at a computer desk all day long and the physical realm has so much more to offer than just ‘break from the norm’. So don't get stuck at the desk. Take that breaka nd feel good about it and get out and 'play'.