Exercise for More Brain Power

I’m currently reading Brain Rules by John Medina.  It’s one of a number of popular books on brain science that have striking relevance to leadership, and to modern life.  Here are a few ideas that really struck me:

Research shows that people perform better cognitively when they exercise on a regular basis.  There is a simple biological reason for this:  exercise makes it easier for critical resources to get to our brains, and for waste products to be removed.  Our brains make very heavy demands for glucose and oxygen that provide the energy needed to perform cognitive tasks, and the disposal service to remove the toxins that brain work creates.  While our brains account for only 2% of our body weight, they can use 20% of our available energy.  And all these resources travel through just one primary set of roads–blood vessels.  Regular exercise improves blood flow to and from our brains, improving the delivery system in and out of our brains for glucose, oxygen, and waste products.  Medina uses the metaphor of changing from dirt roads to paved roads–exercise vastly improves the brain’s access to what it needs for peak performance.

There’s also an evolutionary explanation of why our brains do better when our bodies are active:  we evolved “in motion.”  Until only very recently in our history, humans lived our lives mostly outdoors and our survival demanded that we constantly move our bodies.  We had to hunt, plant, reap, run away.  In other words, the very design of our bodies and brains evolved in a context of high activity.  We are meant for that.  One statistic Medina sites is that for a significant part of our evolution we were moving on average 12 miles a day.  And while our lives have changed enormously in the past century, with many people living sedentary lives, the basic design of our bodies and brains, which evolved over millions and millions of years, hasn’t changed.  To get the best from our brains, we need to use our bodies more like our ancestors did.

The positive impact of exercise on brain function goes well beyond “thinking.”  Exercise helps ward off dementia and Alzheimer’s, it improves mood and decreases depression, and it makes other positive brain changes that impact a vast number of function and quality of life issues.

Beyond exercise, other self-care issues also have a huge impact on brain function and hence leadership effectiveness.  Taking breaks, getting into the sunshine, getting a good night sleep, self-awareness of one’s moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings, and being in the midst of positive relationships–all of these enhance mental function.  Viewing this through the lens of leadership and organizational effectiveness, it becomes obvious that we need to change a lot about how we do business.  Grueling, long hours with no time for rest and exercise is self-defeating.  If the goal is productivity, innovation and success, we have to take more seriously what science is teaching us about the human brain.