Mounting scientific evidence supports the link between exercise and cognitive function. Could the power in your muscles be your secret weapon at work?
Read the original version of the article first published by The Guardian: Women in Leadership here: http://www.theguardian.com/women-in-leadership/2016/feb/04/how-your-physical-health-controls-your-mental-success
Fitness has come a long way since aerobics and legwarmers: it’s no longer just about getting sweaty or honing your body. Scientists have found an indisputable link between physical fitness and brain power. Could we harness this to give us the edge at work?
There are plenty of examples of high-profile women who train hard. In May last year, America’s first lady, Michelle Obama, shared her workout regime, which includes weights, skipping and boxing. Editor-in-chief Anna Wintour sets herself up for a busy day at Vogue with a game of tennis every morning at 5.45am. Alison Trauttmansdorff-Weinsberg, HR director for a leading UK investment bank, represented team GB at triathlon last year and claims that sporting prowess brings her respect from the men she works with.
I have been a pilates and exercise instructor for over 12 years and spent much of this time in corporate environments. I’ve observed that it is often women who aspire to seniority or who are in influential positions at work who invest the most in their physical health.
The latest exercise science links strength and power with both improved cognitive function and bigger brains.
These women aren’t content with just getting fit. They want to optimise their training based on the latest science and research, just as they would with their job-specific training. They see fitness as an indispensable rung on their career ladder.
We’ve known about endorphins and the feelgood factor associated with exercise for a while but the latest exercise science links strength and power with both improved cognitive function and bigger brains. A twins study published in the journal Gerontology in November last year showed chemicals released in the body through exercise could boost not only our processing power but also the mass of our grey matter.
This link between exercise and improved brain power is not new. Aerobic conditioning is a recommended for stroke rehabilitation and a 2013 Cochrane report showed exercise boosted the cognitive skills of Alzheimer’s patients. The November twins study however is the first to stipulate leg power as a determinant factor in improved cognitive processing.
The brain size findings are new too, especially when it comes to the benefits of exercise in your 50s and 60s. We know that regular exercise can halt sarcopenia (muscle ageing). Evidence now suggests that the same is true for our brains.
Exercise can also give you more energy – and this isn’t just psychological. With a periodised training programme (one that gets increasingly more challenging), the body adapts to an increased workload. One of these adaptations is in your mitochondria, your battery or energy cells. Mitochondria then become denser and more efficient, giving you more energy for exercise and for life. This could be the reason why women who exercise regularly appear to have boundless energy.
The link between exercise and our brains is an evolving area for scientific research but the physiological benefits of exercise are indisputable.
Here are five things you could do this year to make a difference to your physical and cognitive health:
Learn how to squat
Squatting is the most fundamental exercise in your leg strength and overall body strength arsenal.
Cut your strength and conditioning programme down to size
Getting fitter and stronger doesn’t have to mean spending hours in a gym. A basic programme optimised to your needs, for 20 minutes, three times a week, is enough to see significant gains.
Optimise your programme to your DNA
Evolving DNA science means you can now find out what types of exercise your body will adapt quickly to from a saliva swab.
Small steps lead to big gains
If the thought of exercise makes you panic, start with a 20-minute walk, three times a week.
Build physical activity into your day
If time is a limitation, get exercise instructors into your office. It’s great for staff morale, productivity and can also provide networking opportunities. In Japan’s offices, everyone stops at 6.30am to take part in “rajio taisou”. It is encouraged by Japanese employers since it’s believed that exercise boosts mental and physical agility and so improves productivity. Exercise classes like pilates and yoga can also help to reduce sick days, by helping staff manage stress and back pain.
Karen Laing leads the holistic and women’s health arm of Fit School, as well as teaching pilates around Essex and London.
Do you want to come and spend a Saturday afternoon with me working on your writing?
Do you have a project you’re working on which needs a little one to one focus?
I’m hosting a writing workshop on the afternoon of Saturday 27th February in Epping Forest. For more information check out the event information.