Why is it when we have busy periods of work, the first thing we let slip is our exercise routine? Closely followed by our sleep, food choices and finally our sanity. Sure we are pushed for time and priorities must be made. Yet when we look at maximising brain performance and mitigating stress, exercise has long been proven as our greatest performance enhancer.

So how do you utilise exercise in maximising your ability to perform at your best cognitively? 

1. Relieve Stress and Manage Depression 

Exercise has a major effect on stress, depression, anxiety and mindfulness. 98.5% of workers in the law profession indicate that exercise decreased their stress significantly. The common misconception is that this is due to an imbalance of ‘feel good’ hormones (endorphins) in the brain. However scientists have discovered that clinical depression is more than a lack of feel good endorphins, it is related to brain cell depletion. This reduction is due to a decline in a protein called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which is responsible for building new brain cells. BDNF production is reduced by stress but most importantly it is released during exercise. 

2. Increase Memory and Learning 

There is a reason why the worlds richest man Bill Gates, is known to run on a treadmill every morning before work. 

The book Spark by Professor John Ratey, highlights the power of exercise for learning, stress, anti-aging, addiction and mood disorders. Professor Ratey shares a story of school children in Naperville, America. In 1990, after reading about the declining health of US children, PE teacher John Lawler decided something needed to change. Lawler decided he would take a group of students to run 1 mile or 1.6km every morning before school. Instead of assessing students based on the time, he assessed them according to their effort via their heart rate monitor. But what was most interesting and unexpected about this social study was the impact it had on academic performance. Not only did the students who ran before school significantly increase their academic results, the subjects they did best in were the ones they did after exercise. This is because of the release of BDNF in creating the new brain cells. Exercise builds the brain cells, it’s up to us to fill them. 

3. Promote Creative Thinking 

One of the best ways to incorporate movement into your day is to take regular breaks throughout the day. Scientists tested creativity before and after walking on a treadmill. In 81% of the participants, creative output increased after walking, with the average subject increasing output by 60%. A few minutes of walking substantially increased the subject’s ability to see things from different angles, facilitating new perspective. It doesn’t have to be intensive (but it doesn’t hurt). As research suggest the higher the intensity the greater the release of BDNF.  

So if you want to increase your focus, retain information and enhance ability to deal with stress, think exercise.