I’ll confess: I’m a sucker for supplements. I recently came across one called “Unfair Advantage,” which promised to provide “a quick, body-friendly burst of brain-enhancing energy without the jittery caffene vibe.” I bought it of course; who doesn’t want easy energy?
Does it work? Frankly, I have no idea. And really, it doesn’t matter if it works, because I already have an unfair advantage that provides me with brain-enhancing energy without the jittery caffeine vibe: exercise. Exercise has been a daily habit of mine for the last few years; a quick workout in the morning before I go to work gives me all the “unfair advantage” I need. Against whom? Maybe against my lazier self. That’s not really the point, though; the point is that exercise makes me feel good, puts me at the top of my game and prepares me to handle the day.
I recently read the book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John J. Ratey, M.D., a professor of psychiatry from Harvard Medical School. According to Ratey, exercise makes us happier, more creative and better able to take on the challenges of our lives.
Transforming Bodies … and Minds
Most people know that exercise makes you physically healthier, builds muscle and just generally improves your body. But these improvements to your physical well-being have effects on your mental faculties, too. In the book, Ratey talks about the student body of a high school in Naperville, Illinois, and the effects their gym regime had on the students.
Of an entire class of sophomores, only 3 percent were overweight. The national average, for comparison, is 30 percent. This sophomore class was one of the healthiest in the nation, but what’s really interesting is that they were also one of the smartest. When assessed on the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), the Naperville students excelled. Countries like China, Japan and Singapore regularly outperform American students on this test, but the Naperville students were the notable exception to this: They finished sixth in math and first in science in the world.
As Ratey explains it, “If you had half an hour of exercise this morning, you’re in the right frame of mind to sit still and focus on this paragraph, and your brain is far more equipped to remember it.”
Improving Cognitive Flexibility
Cognitive flexibility is an important trait for people in intellectually demanding jobs; it reflects your ability to come up with new ideas and think about things in different ways, rather than regurgitating information. Turns out, exercise helps here, too.
In 2007, there was an experiment: A group of people were asked to answer questions that required some cognitive flexibility, like “What can you use a newspaper for?” Half the adults in the study watched a movie beforehand, while the other half spent 35 minutes on a treadmill. The movie watchers rattled off the responses you’d expect (“You read a newspaper”) while the people who spent time on the treadmill were a little more flexible in their responses (“You can wrap fish in it” or “You can use it to pack dishes”).
So, next time you have a big brainstorming session coming up, it might help to take a quick jog around the block first.
Like Prozac and Ritalin, exercise elevates neurotransmitters, as well as other brain chemicals. Though it may not be a replacement for antidepressants, it can have very similar effects when you exercise enough.
In a study in 1999, James Blumenthal and his colleagues compared exercise to Zoloft in a 16-week trial. There were three groups in the study: Zoloft, exercise and a combination of both. At the end of the trial, all three groups had exhibited a decrease in depression, and about half weren’t showing any signs of depression at all.
Daily Exercise Is in Our Genes
The first humans were hunter-gatherers. They chased down their food and walked five to 10 miles per day; exercise was an integral part of daily life. These days, most of us don’t hunt down or gather our own food, unless you count finding a deal in the supermarket aisle “hunting.” Consequently, we’re getting a lot less exercise than our genes tell us we need, and this has an effect on our optimal body and brain performance.
Even if government regulations demanded a high amount of exercise every day, we’d have trouble getting to even 30 percent of what our ancestors had to do. That said, most of us can do better than we currently are. Ratey’s suggestion: “Walk or jog every day, run a couple of times a week, and then go for the kill every now and then by sprinting.”
Generally speaking, a lot of exercise is better than a little. According to Ratey, to get the best results, exercise six days a week for 45 minutes to an hour. Four of those days should be moderate intensity for a longer period of time, while two should be short, high-intensity days.
And I get it, we’re all busy. But making time for exercise is important, and it’ll pay dividends in many aspects of your life. When you exercise regularly, you feel better, you have more energy and you can think more clearly and flexibly. Get up earlier than your kids to exercise, borrow a jogging stroller, take the stairs, take a brisk walk during a break at work, have a regular sports game. Whatever you do, get out and get moving!
How do you make time for exercise? What are your favorite ways to exercise?