1. Exercise has been shown to improve mental tasks so significantly that one study showed that it improved children's math score by one whole grade (e.g. from a B to an A).
2. This improvement in cognitive ability is associated with structural changes in the brain. Research has shown that individuals who exercise regularly have an increase in regions of the brain responsible for attention control, cognitive control, and response resolution.
3. Doing light exercise, such as walking, has been shown to improve creativity, boost energy levels, and enhance performance.
“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” - Friedrich Nietzsche
There has been some fascinating research that shows that your brain functions better after you have activated it with exercise. Dr. Art Kramer’s lab showed that children who did aerobic exercise for 20 minutes before writing math tests improved their scores and that the children who did exercise regularly had different brain structures than those that were less active. The regions of the brain that had larger volumes in the exercise group were related to attention control, cognitive control, and response resolution. These are all centres of the brain that help in maintaining attention and the ability to coordinate actions and thoughts crisply. These results were confirmed in young adults, so it’s not just children who benefit from exercise before mental tasks.
Another study by Dr. Josie Booth from Dundee University of 5000 children in the UK found that 15 minutes of exercise improved performance in math by about a quarter of a grade and that the increments in performance continued right up to 60 minutes, meaning it is possible to boost academic performance by a full grade (i.e. from a B to an A).
Exercise also has the potential to improve creativity. There are examples of the world’s most creative people activating themselves before doing mental tasks using exercise. Charles Dickens was rumored to have walked for 30 miles a day. Bob Marley is one of the best musicians ever, and he did some very interesting things to supercharge his creativity and performance. Before playing concerts Bob and his band the Wailers would play soccer in the stadium where they were to play. Before recording sessions, they would go down to the beach to play soccer then go for a swim before going into the studio. They found that if they played at soccer before playing music they played better and were more creative. I highly recommend watching the documentary ‘Marley’ if you’re interested in Bob’s amazing, inspirational life.
When I read Steve Jobs’ biography I noticed that Steve conducted his meetings while walking around the Apple campus. His biographer noted that if Steve took people for a walk that they would be more creative, have better energy and that they were able to think better.
Turns out Steve Jobs’ instinct to improve his and others thinking by getting some activity is backed up by the research. Scientists at Stanford University found that walking boosts creative inspiration and that creative output can be increased by an average of 60% while walking.
You can do this as well. As little as 15 minutes of exercise improves mental performance, so add this to your day before important tasks that you have to do. If you have an important thinking-related task to do during the day – for example a presentation, a major meeting, or an exam – try to take a few minutes to do some light exercise before the event. If you need to solve a problem block off some time to get focused and make sure that you walk, stretch, or lift some weights in the hour before you settle in to work on the challenge.
Exercise will increase the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the brain and improve your mental performance. It might seem like you’re taking too much time away from the task but the physiology says that you’ll perform better and get healthier at the same time.
Bonus Workout of the Day: Cardio Circuit
Today's New Habit: Find out what you like
By now, hopefully you’ve decreased your sitting time and found ways to incorporate more movement into each day - congratulations!
The next step is to try and find an activity, sport, or exercise that you enjoy. We are much more likely to stick to an activity that we enjoy, so this is a very important step when trying to become more active.
Over the next week, brainstorm some activities that you think you’d like. Do you prefer to workout alone or with a friend or group? Do you prefer structured classes? Team sports? Or something where you can let your mind wonder? Everyone enjoys different things so there is not one right answer.
Once you’ve made a list, try one of these activities this week. Maybe it’s to go for a hike on the weekend, or to try out a new yoga studio. Maybe it’s trying a new sport, or picking up a sport you used to do years ago. The point is, try it out and see how it makes you feel. We’ll check back in with you next week. Enjoy!