Get moving

How exercise makes the brain work better

by Jeannie Croucher
Words Jeannie Croucher Photos Ros Woodham

For weight loss, muscular strength or cardiovascular health, the physical benefits of exercise are indisputable. There is also increasing evidence that physical exercise is hugely beneficial for improved cognitive functioning – concentration, mental agility and productivity – all of which are deemed essential to operate at maximum efficiency during working hours. Many savvy employers facilitate physical health programmes for their employees, as it is recognised that this will result in a more focused and effective workforce.

One of the positive benefits of exercise is improved mood, and it makes sense that a happier employee is a more productive employee.  An ill-tempered or irritable worker may not be motivated to make a huge effort to get on with colleagues or potential clients. However, physical exertion releases endorphins, a type of neurotransmitter that interacts with receptors in the brain, resulting in a ‘high’ that boosts the mood and overall sense of well-being.

Scientific evidence over the last decade has demonstrated that aerobic exercise can increase the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain critical for learning and the formation of new memories. Also, more active and fit individuals have the ability to memorise details and concepts, and can process information more speedily.

It is not considered essential to exercise at a high-impact or even moderate level to gain the cognitive benefits. An experiment carried out by the University of Georgia demonstrated that, over six weeks, low-intensity physical activity reduced fatigue symptoms by sixty-five per cent and increased energy levels by twenty per cent. 

It is now broadly accepted that the benefits of a regular exercise routine, built up and sustained over time, will
improve the body’s cellular reserves of energy which in turn can help to strengthen a person’s workday endurance levels, reducing the mid-afternoon slump in energy and concentration, thus allowing employees to work more efficiently for longer periods.

As both stress and fatigue can lead to impaired work performance and greater absenteeism, anything that can help to combat these commonly experienced work-based problems is of huge interest to employers. The proven benefits gleaned from engaging in physical exercise are a very good reason why many progressive organisations are getting on the healthy bandwagon. ‘Sit less, move more’ studies show that workers who do not spend long periods sitting down to work have a far greater level of mental acuity and are generally happier than those who remain more static at their desks.

In recent years, corporate giants had taken stock of the advantages of allowing employees time to engage in some element of physical activity during the working day. Google set up in-office gyms while Nike provided exercise classes such as yoga. But now, as several big employers offer permanent work-from-home positions, they are also mindful that it can be challenging to maintain a positive attitude whilst working remotely. Many of these organisations have now introduced a variety of virtual fitness classes, to ensure the physical and mental wellbeing of their employees.

‘As several big employers offer permanent work-from-home positions, they are also mindful that it can be challenging to maintain a positive attitude whilst working remotely.’

Hectic work and family schedules mean it can be difficult to find time for activity and it can be perceived to be yet another ‘task’ to fit into an already chaotic, time-strapped life. But prioritising fitness and exercise will have a massive positive impact and leave you feeling happier, more relaxed and less anxious.

If not ready to start training for a triathlon just yet, here are some suggestions to start with:

Walking – the most basic of exercises will leave you energised but relaxed. The foot’s impact during walking sends a hydraulic wave upwards through the arteries increasing the supply of blood to the brain, carrying the oxygen and nutrients that the brain needs to function properly. Walking will also improve muscle tone and give the heart and lungs the kind of workout they need to operate efficiently. 

Low-intensity aerobic exercise – if done regularly can boost brain health in the short and long term. For those that are not physically fit or have other health problems, there is a lower risk of injury.  

Yoga – offers practitioners a unique, holistic mind-body experience, and those who practice regularly experience dramatic changes in the way their bodies feel. They also find that it is easier to cope with the stress of daily challenges and enjoy an overall better quality of life.

Photos Ros Woodham
  • ‘Get moving’ is published in Anthology Volume 14. Read more features from this volume or buy it now.
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