Did you know that exercise can improve your ability to learn?
The body and mind both create and respond to various chemicals. After exercise, the heart produces chemicals that have a stress reduction effect on the brain. The body produces chemicals that stimulate not only growth of muscle, but growth in the mind.
The mind and body are built to work together and benefit each other. In our modern sedentary world it can be easy to forget the benefits of physical exercise. Our minds are constantly busy answering emails, sending texts, and managing social media. Our bodies can become forgotten, and with them the benefits of exercise.
In his book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Dr. Ratey explains the benefits of exercise on the human mind. Starting with the scholastic benefits from an Illinois school using an intensive physical education approach, to the fighting of alzheimer's in the elderly using long walks. If you’re looking for an in depth analysis of the benefits of exercise on the mind give Dr. Ratey’s book a read.
Dr. Ratey’s book talks of his particular excitement over the discovery of BDNF. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is just one example of what our brain produces during and after exercise. This protein influences the growth and survival of neurons in the brain. Quite literally, physical exercise promotes growth in the mind, enhancing our ability to learn.
Our brains are wired to keep track of an incredible amount of information, mostly in the form of spatial information.
As hunter gatherers we spent much of our time and energy finding food. This meant constantly moving around our environment, not getting lost, and remembering where and how to find food. All of this information was integral to our survival.
While moving, our bodies are in a state of recording our surroundings. Movement primes us to learn about our environment; what dangers it might be hiding, and what resources it may posses. During exercise the human mind is physically preparing itself to make new connections. Our bodies (and mind) pumped out a sleuth of chemicals and hormones priming our brains to learn, grow, and remain focused.
At the end of the day, lounging around the fire, the need for learning was reduced. We were safe, comfortable, and relaxed. This was the time for us to recover from a long day of survival. Recovery hormones pumped through our bodies, primed by the prior day’s worth of physical labor, preparing us for a restful night of sleep.
Thousands of years later and our world has dramatically changed.
No longer do we need to burn calories in order to find food. In fact, most people are required to sit still in a front of a screen in order to earn enough money to buy food. And when we do find food it comes through a drive thru window, in a ready-to-eat package, or get’s delivered straight to our door. Hungry? No need to burn any calories to get fed.
While technology is wonderful and extremely quick to evolve, our minds are still very much the same as they were thousands of years ago. Back then our days were spent burning precious calories in order to find enough food to survive. Back then exercise came naturally, and our bodies’ hormones reacted accordingly, priming our minds for learning and growth.
In our modern world we have forgotten that the mind and body are two parts of the same entity, Us.
We spend a vast majority of our time in our own heads, not with our bodies. An average day at work consists of staring at a screen and responding to messages. Intensive mental strain may take place, but physically we are doing very little. Since much of the world runs on our ability to use our minds, we all but forget about our bodies.
We physically feel our bodies, but don’t consciously think about every sensation. Our minds are focused on solving intellectual problems, not on how long we’ve been sitting. We don’t immediately feel our focus improving after a workout, so we don’t associate any mental benefit. We live in a society that focuses on knowledge work, not on living healthy lives.
The words “mind” and “body” are defined differently, so inherently the belief of these two things being separate makes sense. But the rediscovered truth shows that mind and body are not as separate as we once thought.
The old model treats the mind as an executive entity perched atop a mechanical body dishing out instructions and receiving feedback. While it is true that the mind can issue instructions to the body and receive feedback, this is not the extent of the relationship.
The mind communicates with the body, and the body communicates with the mind.
Some mental states, such as stress, are widely accepted as being the causes of physical ailments. But some physical states, such as body language, aren’t as widely known for their potent effect on the mind.
Your body language has influence over the way you think and feel. Amy Cuddy’s TED talk regarding body language is a perfect primer into this concept. Holding yourself in the superwoman stance for 2 minutes can increase testosterone levels, making you more confident and assertive. Being hunched over a device can increase stress hormones and lower confidence.
Once we realize the connection between our mind and body, we can begin to leverage this knowledge to live healthier more fulfilling lives.
Finding time to move in a world of information can be a challenge at first.
When you’ve grown up in a society that has become increasingly reliant on information and knowledge it can be a challenge to become more physical. Our habits have been shaped by chairs, screens, and entertainment. Most of us were not taught the true benefits of exercise while growing up so we have no deep connections to it. While we may read articles like this one and agree with them, we still struggle to form new habits.
It is only by truly believing something will benefit us that we will form new habits around it. Learning the science behind the mind and body is a great start to forming new habits. By knowing the reasons behind a habit, you have more reasons to stick to a habit. And with internet access to books, blogs, and articles we can always find more information.
Sometimes massive amounts of information creates information overload. While learning more and more about health has its benefits, actually putting a foot forward and taking action is more important. We must be careful not to let information overload stop us from taking that first step. Get that fitness tracker, go for that walk, sign up at that gym, do whatever it takes to get some movement into your life.
Information overload isn’t going anywhere, but our bodies will.
Without stimulation our bodies and our minds begin to deteriorate. It is not enough to stimulate the mind alone, because the mind did not evolve alone. The mind evolved with the body as part of the same entity, and as such the two are forever entwined. We cannot escape the reality that our minds need our bodies in order to function properly, and that our bodies need our minds.
We are built to move, not to sit.
Depression, ADHD, Anxiety, learning disorders, and mental disorders abound can all be alleviated or even cured by simply integrating exercise into your routine. Your human self was built to move, it was built to learn, and it was built to grow. But you must give it the reasons to do so.
How should you be including exercise to benefit your mind?
It is more important to incorporate movement into your life than to worry about how to incorporate it. So, the short answer is to do whatever works for you and whatever you will stick with.
In his book Spark, Dr. Riley recommends burning at least 700 calories per week as a minimum way to receive cognitive benefits from exercise. This can be accomplished by jogging ~1 mile every day. Adding in resistance training produces further benefits.
The largest muscle groups in your body are located in your upper legs, thighs, and glutes. Exercising these muscles produces the most bang for your buck in terms of hormonal benefits. Try adding in squats, lunges, or box jumps into your routine.
High intensity interval training has been getting a lot of coverage lately. HIIT is seen as a way to get more benefits in less time, and this may be true for cognitive benefits as well. Try adding an intense 15-30 minute high intensity exercise routine into your day.
However you decide to incorporate exercise into your daily routine is up to you. The important thing is to find an exercise routine you can stick to in order to accumulate the cognitive benefits over time.