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After being cooped up inside all day, your afternoon stroll may leave you feeling clearheaded. This sensation is not just in your mind. A growing body of evidence suggests we think and learn better when we walk or do another form of exercise. The reason for this phenomenon, however, is not completely understood.
Part of the reason exercise enhances cognition has to do with blood flow. Research shows that when we exercise, blood pressure and blood flow increase everywhere in the body, including the brain. More blood means more energy and oxygen, which makes our brain perform better.
Another explanation for why working up a sweat enhances our mental capacity is that the hippocampus, a part of the brain critical for learning and memory, is highly active during exercise. When the neurons in this structure rev up, research shows that our cognitive function improves. For instance, studies in mice have revealed that running enhances spatial learning. Other recent work indicates that aerobic exercise can actually reverse hippocampal shrinkage, which occurs naturally with age, and consequently boost memory in older adults. Yet another study found that students who exercise perform better on tests than their less athletic peers.
The big question of why we evolved to get a mental boost from a trip to the gym, however, remains unanswered. When our ancestors worked up a sweat, they were probably fleeing a predator or chasing their next meal. During such emergencies, extra blood flow to the brain could have helped them react quickly and cleverly to an impending threat or kill prey that was critical to their survival.
So if you are having a mental block, go for a jog or hike. The exercise might help pull you out of your funk.
As a parent, you want to give your child every advantage in life, so it’s a no-brainer that you’d want to try boosting her intellect. While parking a tot in front of a Baby Einstein video didn’t turn out to be such a smart idea (a University of Washington study found that such video viewing delays small children’s language skill building), exercise actually ups IQ scores.
Any elementary-school teacher will tell you that children concentrate and behave better after gym class or recess. But those aren’t the only benefits of physical activity. After reviewing 14 studies (12 of them from the US), Dutch researchers found that kids’ cognitive test scores and grades are higher if they have outlets, like gym class or recess, to blow off steam. While they didn’t examine how much activity is necessary to up smarts, some is clearly better than none. So encourage your child to play sports and make sure her teachers give daily play breaks.
They say it’s the little things, and maybe it is. When we think of health goals (among other objectives), our minds often gravitate toward the dramatic, the transformational. Go big or go home, some even say. While that last point might be pushing it (all positive change is positive), I tend toward the big and bold myself. I believe in the possibility of transformation (the titles of my books are obvious evidence of that). Yet, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Unfortunately, too many people get psyched out by the size of the enterprise itself. They focus on the large expanse between where they are now and where they want to be. That’s exactly where they shouldn’t be placing their attention. Success isn’t built by daily yearning for a distant goal. It’s in creating and celebrating the small wins we can plot along the way.
Inherent to this idea of small wins lead to bigger successes is what Teresa Amabile, author and Professor at the Harvard Business School, calls the “progress principle.” Amabile and her associates studied employees’ daily diaries that her team designed. They found the efforts of tracking small achievements each day (as well as reflecting on challenges) enhanced workers’ motivation as well as creativity. The chance to consider and record one’s progress, she explains, helps us appreciate our “small wins” and boosts our sense of competence. We can then “leverage” that confidence (as well as lessons learned from the reflection) toward subsequent, larger successes. Amabile stresses there’s always some progress to recognize in a day, even on the most challenging or discouraging days.
That notion alone is pivotal. I’ve met a lot of people up against major health challenges or weight loss issues. Among the key things that got them through (while others tended to give up) was the ability to appreciate small changes and celebrate where they were throughout the arc of their progress. They brought awareness to their full journey and focused on the positive every step of the way. Sure, they had difficult days like everyone else, but they recognized a temporary mood and let it pass. They didn’t let it define the future or whole endeavor. Applying Amabile’s suggestion, we can – and should – acknowledge the small physical and mental shifts we experience regardless of how far we may be from our eventual health objectives.
Yet, too often we downplay our progress or even talk ourselves out of it for the sake of guilt, unworthiness, or misguided modesty. Why? We’re taking the wind out of our own sails instead of leveraging, as Amabile suggests, our daily successes toward continuing motivation. Charles Duhigg, author of acclaimed book The Power of Habit explains the durable impact of these small achievements: “A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, and influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves.” In other words, it makes no difference how minute our day’s achievement is because – when we allow ourselves to recognize the wins and leverage these “tiny advantages,” as Duhigg calls them – the power we absorb from each small win will always be more substantial than the original event. Progress takes on a life of it’s own – like motivation gone viral within our brain.
This viral principle, however, isn’t limited to the day’s post-mortem assessment. Our day’s routine in and of itself is ripe for subtle but strategic revolution. Duhigg writes about the power of “keystone habits,” those habits that, while seemingly modest and self-contained, have inordinate sway over other choices we make and actions we take throughout the day. Adopting a single new habit, if it’s of a pivotal keystone variety, can enact widespread change in our lifestyle. Among the examples Duhigg highlights is food journaling. In an NIH study of some 1600 obese people, those who were asked to write down a day’s food intake one day a week ended up losing twice the weight as other groups. The request was enough to get many of the participants to extend the habit into other days of the week and, as Duhigg explains, “created a structure that helped other habits to flourish.”
The key here is to discern what habits can become “keystone habits” for your health journey. As the principle suggests, it’s unnecessary to overload yourself with a laundry list of changes to your routine. That’s the principle behind the “keystone” approach: you don’t need to upend your life or turn yourself inside out working toward change. You just need to be strategic about what to shift. Ultimately, it’s about letting these few changes build momentum in your life and then fueling that momentum with the energy of celebrating each small win. It’s the snowball effect at its multidimensional best. The end result can be achieving that ultimate goal you set as well as successes you may have never envisioned.
We face fear daily. Maybe you’re afraid to ask your boss for that pay raise, or maybe you’re making a big life decision. But a not so obvious way fear may be creeping into your life to sabotage your efforts for a healthier lifestyle is in your movement. Whether you’re wanting to begin a new fitness routine or are a seasoned mover, it’s worth your time to evaluate how fear could be preventing you from reaching your full potential. Confronting that fear can help you reach your goals and bring you to the next level of your training. Let’s look at some common fears that could be preventing you from getting and staying active.
Fear of Failure
Remember when you were a kid, and you felt invincible? You would try almost anything, and if you failed, you would bounce back up without blinking twice. Somewhere along the way, most of us lost a great deal of that resilience and have become scared to move!
What if we fail at something we thought we would be able to do? Failure has a bad reputation. Everyone fails, yet we are all afraid of it.
Does this inner dialogue sound familiar to anyone?
“I should really be able to do a push up…I know I used to do lots of push ups, but now I don’t think I can do any. I don’t want to fail, so I don’t want to try. I’d rather do something else.”
This is a thought process called self-handicapping. I have to admit, this one gets me. I practice Parkour and natural movement which both contain some scary skills. When I am placed in a situation where I am surrounded by practitioners who are much more experienced than I am, my first reaction is to go into self-preservation mode, so I can avoid revealing that I may not be able to do something. Since becoming aware of this behavior pattern, I can more easily recognize when I am doing it, confront it, drop the ego, and try! It is amazing how much you can accomplish when you get out of your own way.
Take Action: The key here is letting go of the ego, and developing a playful and positive attitude. Robert Allen reminds us that “There is no failure. Only feedback.” So feedback, then, will always be a part of everyone’s life in some way. You have to choose to accept this feedback as a part of the human condition. You have to start somewhere. Wherever you are, it’s okay. Take charge of your path of improvement. When you do this, you will surprise yourself with how much room for success you create.
Fear of Judgement
Let’s be honest. To some of the general population, some of the primal movements can seem strange and even child-like. (Little do they know, kids have had it right the whole time!) Climbing a tree, or rolling in the grass can be viewed as activities for kids, and adults should act like adults, not kids. I suppose that means contained in their cubicles, and not free in trees. But what is more natural than crawling in some grass, lifting logs and jumping on rocks?
Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all seek acceptance from our communities. It’s common to fear rejection from your peers if you are doing something outside of the box, and outside of the general population’s scope of what working out should look like.
Take Action: A remedy for this fear is working out/playing with a group of people. Starting a MeetUp group is an excellent way to find others interested in joining in on some primal playouts. Schedule group hikes, bring in local primal fitness experts, or get together a game of Ultimate Frisbee with your group. You might draw more attention with a larger group, but now you have the validation of an entire group of people with you. You also develop a stronger community, which in turn helps spread the word of living a Primal lifestyle. People may judge, but in the grand scope of things, you are working towards lifelong health and that trumps any judgment others may have.
Fear of Injury
Sometimes a movement can literally just be scary. The fear of going for that tall box jump, balancing high off the ground, or going for that huge lift can be a scary experience. No one wants injury, and when going into unknown territory, well…the outcome is unknown. To quote Daniel Ilabaca: “If you’re afraid to fall, you fall because you’re afraid.” If you approach a task with fear, you are preparing to fall instead of preparing to succeed. Expectations are extremely powerful. Predicting that you are going to drop the weight makes you much more likely to make that come true.
Avoid creating self-fulfilling prophecies by becoming mindful. Meditate regularly, and when you are preparing to try something new, take some deep breaths, imagine yourself succeeding, and stay focused. This mindfulness can greatly help you avoid injury.
Take Action: Progress skills properly. For example, precision jumps can be scary, yet when progressed correctly, are a great skill to practice. Begin by grabbing a couple of 2x4s and set them parallel to each other with only a foot or two distance. Practice jumping between the two and landing on the balls of your feet and absorbing through your legs to make a quiet landing. As you get comfortable with the distance, you can increase the distance between the 2×4’s. As the distance to your landing increases, the more important it is to have a parabolic jump. This means your jump’s path through the air should be rainbow shaped versus too horizontal. Not having this parabolic motion can cause an unstable landing surface to slip beneath your feet.
Another way to prevent injury is to have an exit strategy. What happens if mid-jump you discover you aren’t going to make it? How are you going to land? How far will you fall? How will you stop your momentum safely? Try your exit strategy before going for the actual skill. Then when you really go for it, you know how to bail out of it if you aren’t quite there yet. Practicing this exit strategy will take away some of that fear of injury.
The good news is that the more often you face your fears, the better you will become at recognizing when fear is present, and knowing how to breeze past it. Starting is always the hardest part, and seeking help from those in your community is an excellent way to start.
One of the many perks of exercising is that it is well known to support your brain health through BDNF (brain-derived neurotropic factor). This even spurs the creation of new brain cells (a process called neurogenesis).
Exercise boosts brain health through multiple pathways, including improving your hormone levels, increasing blood flow to your brain, reducing stress, and many others likely yet to be discovered.
The benefits of exercise can be felt rather quickly, which is great for motivation… but what happens if you stop exercising? As you might suspect, new research suggests your brain may quickly revert back to its pre-exercise state.
If you work out religiously for three months, then suddenly stop for an extended period, your muscle tone will definitely suffer. This is one of the more obvious examples that your body is designed for regular exercise, not sporadic or infrequent activity.
Likewise, two new studies presented at the 2012 annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience also revealed that the brain benefits of exercise also quickly fade if your exercise program stops.
In the first study, active rats that had a week of inactivity were pitted against completely inactive rats while performing memory tests. The previously active rats completed the tests much faster and had at least twice as many new neurons in the hippocampus region (the “memory center”) of their brains. But remember, this was after just one week of inactivity.
At three weeks of inactivity, their new neurons began to decrease, as did their performance on the memory test. After six weeks of no activity, the neurons declined even more, as did their memory test scores, leading the study authors to suggest the “exercise-induced benefits may be transient.”1
In the second study, rats that were active for 10 weeks, followed by three weeks of inactivity, had brains that were nearly identical to those of rats that had been completely inactive. In prior studies, it was shown that exercise had a favorable effect on the animals’ moods, making them less anxious and more resilient to stress. However, the new research suggests that such benefits “wear off quickly.” As the first study’s senior author noted:2
“Brain changes are not maintained when regular physical exercise is interrupted… though our observations are restricted to rats, indirect evidence suggests that the same phenomenon occurs in human beings.”