It’s long been said we think better on our feet, and it’s true.
Kids given standing desks were found to ask or answer more questions and contribute more to class discussion. This was equivalent to an increase in engagement of 12% or an extra 7 minutes of effective learning in a lesson.
That might not sound a lot, but over the course of an 8-lesson day that adds up to an extra 54 minutes.
Think of all that extra potential waiting to be tapped. Let’s not forget either that our brain’s plasticity is available to us across our lifespan. We are lifelong learners meaning keeping physically active is a fantastic, simple and cost-effective way of keeping our minds sharp and thinking hot.
But we have been evolving into an increasingly sedentary society, making it harder for ourselves to retain clarity of thought, make good decisions and solve problems easily.
The solution has been long staring us in the face. It’s time to get off our bottoms and move more.
Which is why there has been a move towards providing more stand-up or variable height desks at work. One recent article debated the validity of such a move, citing a potential conflict of interest in the recently published guidelines for sitting and moving at work because one of the contributing authors had a commercial link to these type of desks.
But this doesn’t mean we should ignore the evidence that standing and moving helps us to think better. The increased blood flow to the brain supplying extra oxygen and nutrients supports better brain function and stimulates the release of trophic factors that work to support neuronal health and neuroplasticity.
Exercise primes the brain for better performance.
Harvard professor John Ratey in his book Spark revealed how exercise gets us ready to learn, elevates mood and reduces stress.
The best exercise for brain function is always going to be the exercise you do. For years the public health message has been to “find thirty!” The gold standard of 30 minutes of huff n’puff or aerobic exercise that gets your heart rate up and makes you puff a bit.
For kids this could be something as simple as running around the school oval before class. We could join them of course, or do our own thing by scheduling time to get the gym, go for a jog, walk, swim or cycle ride.
But there are a couple of stumbling blocks.
What if you haven’t been blessed with the ‘lovin’ exercise gene, are allergic or are exercise intolerant?
And what if your overstuffed and ridiculously busy schedule simply doesn’t cater for that time out for you, yourself to indulge in extra physical activity?
Help appears to be at hand and its PURE gold.
The PURE study looked at the effect of physical activity on mortality (death) and heart disease in 130,000 people from 17 high, middle and low-income countries and concluded (no prizes for guessing the outcome) that physical activity counts as much as going to the gym.
The main difference being that the time required for sufficient aerobic exercise is 30 minutes daily five times a week versus 1-2 hours of physical activity.
Moving more in your day can be achieved by choosing to:
1. Stand more
This might look like standing for 5-10 minutes after sitting for an hour. Choosing to stand in meetings, while on the phone or when having a face to face conversation, (with both parties standing!) or persuading your boss or yourself to trial a stand up or variable height desk.
2. Move more during the day
Look for the opportunity to walk to speak to a colleague rather than texting or emailing them. Arrange a walking meeting. Get outside at lunchtime for a walk, jog or stretch. Take the stairs instead of the lift.
3. Review how you get to and from work to see whether you can get off the bus/train one stop earlier and walk the rest of the way, or choose to cycle into work several times a week.
While the PURE study looked at the impact of physical activity on mortality and heart disease, what’s good for the heart is often very good for the brain.
Exercise changes the brain
Walking, that activity requiring us to use our legs to propel us from one place to another has been shown to be the ideal activity to get us thinking better and remembering more.
Regular aerobic (huff n’puff) exercise has been shown to boost the size of the hippocampus (in women at least), that part of the brain used in learning and verbal memory. It reduces inflammation and insulin resistance – both factors for cognitive decline, and improves sleep patterns, also vital for better thinking and mental energy.
For those of you interested in brain conservation, regular exercise has been shown to help us to retain more grey and white matter. While brain shrinkage is a normal phenomenon associated with ageing, keeping physically active with exercise can reduce or put a halt to that brain shrinkage assisting the development what is called cognitive reserve.
We are born with a marvellous brain. Working to your true potential, starts with giving your brain the attention it deserves to work at its very best.
It’s time to start doing more of the one thing that will make the biggest difference to how well you think, learn and remember.
As Soren Kierkegard reminds us:
“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus, if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”
Does your brain need a better workout?
What can you do to ramp up your level of daily physical activity?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.