A wave of studies exploring the unexpected links between brainpower and bodily fitness have been emerging from universities.
Results from these studies are showing how regular exercise is a key ingredient for building the brain and improving all aspects of cognition, especially mental focus and ability to concentrate.
This information is helping executives and CEO’s prepare physically for mental challenges such as creative projects, interviews and long days in the office. It is also illustrating why regular exercise really should be a part of your job.
Exercise can help you focus and stay on task.
Results of a Leeds Metropolitan University study, which examined the influence of daytime exercise among office workers with access to a company gym, suggested that exercise during regular work hours boosts mental performance. Researchers found on days when employees visited the gym, their experience at work changed. They reported managing their time better, being more productive, and being able to stay on task more effectively.
A study conducted by VU University Medical Centre in the Netherlands showed that interspersing lessons with 20-minute bouts of aerobics-style exercise improved the attention spans of school pupils.
Meanwhile, a large randomised controlled trial in the US looked at the effects of daily after-school sports classes on children over a school year. Results of the study showed improvements in the children’s executive control; they became more adept at ignoring distractions, multitasking, and holding and manipulating information in their minds.
Elsewhere, studies have shown that the parts of the brain that control thinking, memory and concentration (the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex) have greater volume in people who exercise versus people who don’t. “Even more exciting is the finding that engaging in a program of regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of these selected brain regions,” says Dr. Scott McGinnis, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School.
This cognitive spill–over from exercise is showing us that our brains do not operate in isolation. What you do with your body influences greatly on your all of your mental faculties ¬– especially focus and concentration.
How does it work?
Exercise helps drive mental focus and enhance levels of concentration through both direct and indirect means. The direct benefits? It helps you focus.
Getting your heart rate up leads directly and immediately to improved cognitive function and staying on task. This is due to a positive increase in blood pressure and blood flow to the brain. More blood means more energy and oxygen, and this makes our brain perform better. Especially in certain parts such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain known to help in resisting distractions and improving attention.
Exercising moderately and regularly stimulates the release chemical growth factors in the brain. The release of these growth factors stimulate the formation of new brain cells, continued health of existing brain cells and growth of brain blood vessels, helping improve brain function and boosting mental performance.
More specifically exercise increases BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), in parts of the brain regions involved in executive control and concentration. This leads directly to brain cells binding to one another. As such, synapses, or connections between cells become denser and more intimate ¬– we think and focus better because our capacity to make connections is improved.
Regular exercise is also shown to reduce insulin resistance and inflammation, shown to be strong causes of brain fog, reduced memory and concentration.
The indirect benefits?
In addition to its direct effects on mental performance, physical activity also aids concentration by improving general health. Feeling tired, uncomfortable, and irritable can take a toll on cognitive health and ability to concentrate. Developing a regular exercise routine helps increase fitness, improve sleep, lowers stress and improves mood. This boosts mental health and combats conditions, such as anxiety, fatigue and depression, which make concentrating at work difficult.
The quickest way to build your brain
If you’re looking for immediate improvements in mental acuity and concentration a minimum of 20 minutes moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise (heart rate at 70–80% of maximum), interspersed with your work hours, such as in the morning before you begin or in your lunch break, seem to work best.
For longer term benefits, developing a regular pattern of 30–60 minutes resistance training three days per week and 20–30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise, ideally five days a week, before or after work or during your lunch break, will help build your brain and develop your super powers of concentration.
Hayden Thin is a specialised health and fitness consultant and master trainer. For the past 17-years he has worked with a range of clients, from CEOs and CEO mentors, to founding directors and TV personalities. He is also the founder of Fit First Class, a boutique personal training and education practice based in Abu Dhabi. For more information, visit http://fitfirstclass.com
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