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If reducing brain fog, improving your memory and thinking skills matter to you, it’s time to get moving because exercise isn’t just good for our physical health, it’s essential to our mood, mental well-being and cognition.

The cognitive benefits of exercise include

  1. Regular exercise brings more oxygen and nutrients to your brain, priming it for best performance.  
  2. It stimulates the growth of new blood vessels to improve further blood supply and the release of neurochemicals including BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) that promote neurogenesis, the production of new brain cells from stem cells and strengthens synaptic connections between existing neurons.
  3. It elevates levels of mood-regulating hormones including dopamine, serotonin and endorphins.
  4. It has been shown to boost executive function in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain used for planning, logic and decision-making.
  5. Keeping fit across our lifespan preserves cognitive function for midlife and beyond. Think of it as a savings account for your future.
  6. It has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain used for learning and verbal memory
  7. It reduces or eliminates brain shrinkage that occurs as we age.
  8. It enhances better sleep patterns, helps to regulate our weight and reduces stress and anxiety.

We think better on our feet which is why many workplaces are now looking for ways to increase activity levels across our workday. Prolonged sitting makes us feel more tired and lethargic diminishing productivity and efficiency.

It’s not that we don’t know exercise is important to our health and wellbeing it’s that busy lifestyles, heavy work commitments and fatigue can get in the way.

Better than a set of steak knives, including regular exercise into your daily schedule doesn’t have to be a chore or something to feel guilty about not doing enough of.

Here are five ideas to consider to help you achieve your exercise goals, feel more energised and boost your brain power.

1. Ask yourself the BIG question.

How important is this to me and WHY do I want to get fitter anyway?

If you’re feeling guilty about not getting to the gym, admitting that you’d rather have your toenails pulled out rather than suffering in Lycra because Activewear brings you out in a rash, and hating the thought of all that hard, sweaty activity, it’s going to make it harder to find your WHY.

It’s time to reframe how you look at exercise to discover what would help you to move more and enjoy it too.

If you hate exercise, call it something different and think of those activities involving movement that you do enjoy.

2. Assess Your Reality.

If Find Thirty a day has translated into Thirty minutes a month, be honest and admit your intentions aren’t working. It’s time to do things differently.

The current recommendation is 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week. That’s the kind of is where that gets your heart rate up, makes you puff and will raise a light sweat. How you achieve, that is up to you. Some people find attending a 50 minute or hourly class or gym session, a couple of team training sessions and a game on the weekend is what works for them. Others choose to break it up into ten-minute slots across the day.

The how is less important than the doing, and as far as your brain is concerned ALL physical activity counts.

3. Shake it up. Set the intention to do things differently

That 150 minutes of aerobic exercise is the MINIMUM by the way. Doing more is even better.

Yikes! Yes, that means looking beyond those classes, to what you can be doing on a daily basis to increase your physical activity spend.

That might look like assessing your travel to and from work. Are there any opportunities to change your mode of travel to include more walking, cycling or standing? Crowded buses, trains and trams can provide the opportunity to choose to stand during your ride and maybe get off one stop early to walk the rest.

If using a car, are there options to drive a shorter part of the way and walk the rest?

At work look for ways to stand more.

This might include using a variable height desk, a tredputer or treadmill to use while doing those activities such as reading, talking on the phone or participating in a conference call.

I recently watched a presenter online deliver his talk while walking on his treadmill. This is perhaps one time where standing still would work better (for the audience at least!). I was mesmerised by the distraction of his head bobbing around on the screen and worried he would momentarily stop walking and fly off the back! While that might have made the talk more interesting, it was hard to pay attention to what he was talking about.

Standing and walking meetings are growing in popularity. It keeps the meetings shorter and more focused. Because let’s face it, it’s more difficult to check your emails and send texts while standing in a circle or walking alongside your colleague discussing the matter at hand.

If you’re confined to your desk for prolonged periods, schedule a regular standing, stretching and moving time of 5-10 minutes every 60-90 minutes. It gets the blood pumping to your head, helps clear your mind, refocuses your attention and will increase your productivity.

Avoid eating “Al Desko” as coined by Carl Honore for lunch. Getting away from your desk to get outside into some fresh air and sunshine will help top up your vitamin D levels and that green space will boost your mood.

Taking the initiative to make even small changes can lead to a significant long-lasting benefit as your new habit becomes the norm. You may find you start to look forward to being out and about and more active.

4. Get specific.

The vague notion of being more active doesn’t change behaviour. It’s too easy not to. This is  where getting down to the specifics can help.

If you’ve decided to start with a walking program, write down which days you’ll be walking, how long you’ll be walking for and how you intend to build up to increase the time and distance each week. Having a goal in mind keeps you on track and don’t forget to call in for support from friends, family or the dog.

Staying accountable makes it feel even more rewarding when you achieve your goals and will inspire you to continue.

There are many different ways to exercise. Beyond aerobic – the huffy-puffy sort, there is resistance or strength training, now shown to be very helpful for building cognitive muscle, flexibility and balance training. So why not mix it up – a couple of sessions of cardio, yoga and playing a team sport make the perfect combo.

5. Measure your progress.

Just like your KPI’s as work, noting your progress is highly motivating. That’s where the many forms of wearables come in so handy. They take out the guesswork and reveal the reality. If you’re the competitive type, you might find yourself seeking to improve on your personal best.

Reached 8000 steps on Tuesday?

Let’s make it 9000 today.

You might find it helpful to work with a personal trainer or to seek specialist advice if you have a medical condition where it’s important to be doing the right form of exercise.

Last but not least make it fun!

If dancing is your thing, then look to make it part of your exercise plan.

The best exercise is always the exercise you do and if you’re having a great time in the process how good is that?

Writing your own exercise prescription for better health and cognitive fitness has never been easier and the best time to start is NOW!

That’s smarter thinking by design.

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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