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“Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jumped over the candlestick.”

To be a good candlestick leaper, you have to be agile and quick.
Nimbleness rules in the brain because nimble neurons function better.
This means the best workout you can ever give your brain, is a 20 – 30 minute bout of exercise.

Let’s face it, every workday can feel like a marathon. How often are you feeling super busy, super stressed, perhaps super tired making it ever harder to get your work done, let alone done well?

For cognitive stamina, optimal function and the best results, your brain needs your attention and a regular workout.

The one thing that makes the biggest difference to how well our brains work at any age is how much exercise we get. Aerobic exercise is the simplest and easiest way to boost brainpower.

All you need is 20 minutes to get started.
Five minutes to read this newsletter.
Then fifteen minutes to get out and do some aerobic exercise – anything to get you huffed and puffed and a little bit sweaty.

At work we use our prefrontal cortex (the PFC or executive suite) to make plans, organise ourselves, make decisions and pay attention. We use our subconscious to facilitate long-term memory storage, generate emotion and stay safe. We use our subconscious too, to develop insight and our creative ideas. Whole brain thinking is highly complex and hugely energy demanding.

Having enough stamina and the balance required for high performance thinking takes work, physical work.

Studies have shown that a single session of aerobic exercise boosts cognition, memory and mood. But one 20-minute session isn’t going to cut it.

It’s the regular habit of exercise that matters.

And it’s not just about protecting ageing brains from deterioration either.
We start to lose brain volume from our early twenties (around 1% each year) especially in the area of the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with learning and memory. Yikes!
This is where exercise comes to the rescue. Regular exercise can slow down or negate the rate of brain loss.

That’s because exercise stimulates the release of BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), which in turn stimulates neurogenesis – the production of new neurons and their incorporation into our existing brain circuitry. Without that stimulus many of those new neurons produced daily otherwise go to waste.

Which exercise should you do?

Ideally moderate intensity aerobic exercise, ideally 150 minutes a week (or five thirty-minute sessions). Think swimming, jogging, cycling, tennis.
High intensity training has recently been shown to also be of benefit (great news for time-poor execs trying to cram more exercise into tighter schedules), as has strength training.

If the thought of Lycra and sweating isn’t your thing, even walking can make a difference, with studies showing how brisk walking (not a stroll) also reverses brain atrophy and boosts the size of the hippocampus. Here the premise is, the more you can do, the better for your brain.

In our busy, complex and complicated world can you afford not to have your nimblest neurons available to you?

Hayley Guiney & Liana Machado (2013)
Benefits of regular aerobic exercise for executive functioning in healthy populations
Psychon Bull Rev 20:73 – 86
DOI 10.3758/s13423-012-0345-4

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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