Can you use activity and exercise to boost your brain power?

In this podcast, Tougher Minds Founder Dr. Jon Finn explains the importance of exercise and activity for human wellbeing and mental resilience.

He discusses how exercise can help us boost our brain function by releasing hormones, so that we feel better and perform better in work and life.

Did you know that we’re not designed to sit down? And that anthropologists believe that humans are designed to walk at least 12 miles per day?

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Podcast Transcription
This is the Tougher Minds podcast. I’m Andrew Whitelam and I’m joined by Tougher Minds founder, Dr. Jon Finn. Thanks for listening. In this episode, we’re talking about exercise and activity, and its importance in everyone’s life and work. Jon, what’s your overall perspective on exercise and activity for people? And it’s important for them?

Well, we always have to think about what we are designed to do? We’ve been evolving for over 200,000 years. So what we’re designed to do, it turns out, according to anthropologists, is to move around and solve problems. How far are we designed to move every day? Well, I think about 12 miles.

Wow. That’s a shock for many.

Yes and that’s what we are designed to do. And unfortunately, we currently spend more time than ever before in a sedentary position. We drive as close as we can and park as close as we can. We take the lift or the elevator instead of the stairs. So that’s a problem. What very famous physical activity scientists will tell you is that if you sit too long, it kills you. We’re not designed to be sitting.

I’ve heard sitting recently described as the new smoking.

Yes, it’s dangerous for our health serb were designed to move around and solve problems. We think about 12 miles per day, yes, we spent more of our time than ever before sitting. And a big part of that is, is the sort of work that we do now. Certainly, the city that I live in the places where there used to be factories, and our office blocks, or people would have gone in there 20 to 30 years ago, to do a very physical job. And now they go in there, and they sit most of the day. So we’ve got a problem. And we’re seeing that in the UK. And we’ve got an obesity epidemic. knock on effect, type two diabetes epidemic. So we have a problem in this area. But it’s not just about physical problems. If we’re not exercising properly, our brain doesn’t work properly. And that’s essentially what we’re interested in Tougher Minds, because that’s where everything starts. And why is that?

So the right amount of physical activity is connected to healthy brain function. One of the things that very clever molecular scientists, biologists have discovered is a protein called BDNF. When you move around this protein called BDNF. BDNF is released in your brain, they would describe that protein is allowing you to be potentially clever, because remember, were designed to move around and solve problems when we’re moving around our brain is releasing this really clever protein that makes it easier for us to be clever for our brain to wire faster.

So that’s one reason connected to that is a fundamental part of our brain for learning. And managing stress well, is called the hippocampus or the hippocampus, because there’s one in each hemisphere. The reason that part of the brain is so important is because it’s the only part of the human brain we understand, that produces new brain cells. So if you want to learn new skills, for work, new skills for being healthier, happier, not your best, if you want to be innovative and creative, and learn from your mistakes, and keep doing all that stuff that helps you in your organisation to succeed and thrive in a very challenging world that I’m used to learning very important. Equal if you want to manage stress. New brain cells are absolutely essential. So when exercising properly, we’re getting reduced function with areas of the brain like the hippocampus. So it’s making our life more difficult.

That’s an interesting and very compelling reason I’m sure for people to do more exercise. Just as you mentioned it, we’ll just briefly mention the chemical released when people move and walk around BDNF. What does that stand for? Is that an abbreviation? Just if people may be wanting to do a bit more research online, what is BDNF in greater detail?

BDNF stands for brain derived neurotrophic factor, right? And what does that do for us joy just just summarise again, its effects and its benefits.

So it’s a protein that is connected to helping your brain learn faster. So helping that neuroplasticity process makes learning more efficient and effective.

In summary, and that’s the chemical released when we move. So that’s a fascinating insight already. This is the Tougher Minds podcast. Thanks for listening to us. We hope the insights we’re sharing with you are helpful for you in your life. And in your work. Don’t forget, if you want to, you can send us your questions, email them to us at… if you have any specific questions or further questions or questions on this, or previous podcasts. So Jon, we understand then, from your insight that the process of exercising or being active or moving, has this neurobiological benefit, as you would see, and why is that important for us?

Well, we need to be efficient and effective when we’re at work when we’re doing other things in our lives. So we can just go through the motions. And the way that we think about people – we call them activation levels – throughout the day is that your brain broadly has three steps. So you think of the brain a little bit like a battery, one stays recharge. So that includes sleep and non sleep activities. So part of any 24 hour period, you’re going to spend recharging your brain. The second step is what we call medium charge.

So this is where you are alert enough and activated enough to do quite menial habit based tasks…..stuff that’s very familiar to maybe like replying to emails, doing filing, even standing up and giving a talk if it’s very familiar to you. So we spend some of our 24 hour period in that brain state that and, and that type of work is increasingly becoming automated via artificial intelligence and machine learning.

And the final brain state is what we call high charge. This is the type of activation that we need to do really clever work, innovative work, creative work, the kinds of tasks you haven’t done before, while you’re learning to do it for the first time. And this is the these types of tasks are increasingly what human beings have been valued for because we can’t automate them. And we were not very good at getting machines or artificial intelligence to do these types of types. So at work, we need to be able to have the kind of brain states there that allow us to do high charge work. And exercise is absolutely an essential ingredient to allow us to do that.

So there are multiple things I do every day to give myself the best chance of achieving that, that type of brain state. But some of the big important things are connected to exercise.

So I was going to say you started by saying we’re interested in exercise, not because it gives us a six pack because of how it affects our brain. That’s what Tougher Minds is about
how it affects our brain, and therefore efficiency and effectiveness and creativity and innovation. And all this stuff that we’re super interested in, in helping our businesses to, to succeed and thrive in what is a very challenging world.

So the first thing I do when I get up every morning literally is I put my running things on wherever I’m in the world and I go for a run for maybe 2025 minutes. And I do that not because it really excites me and I find it really cool to do in the moment I do an aspiring idea because I know that after it, I will feel better and my brain will be in a better position to do some clever work, the kind of work that I need to do to help my clients and my organisation to keep moving forwards.

And then why I would do periodically throughout the day is other bouts of exercise, anything from just getting up from the desk, you know, and walk walk in, maybe not to the cafeteria that’s in in our building, maybe walk in, you know a few blocks away to the coffee shop that then allows me to accumulate maybe 10 to 15 minutes of exercise. So when I get back to my desk, and I’m ready to go again, I’ll do the same at lunchtime.

And I do the same I might use exercise in after my evening meal to help me to unwind and relax and reflect on the day. So we are designed to move around and solve problems. Solving problems is one of the biggest while solving problems in a really efficient and effective manner is one of the biggest things that are going to help any business to be successful in the VUCA world. We live in. So we got to use this to help our people to harness their brain states. And to do that creative and innovative work that’s going to make your company beat the competition.

This is the Tougher Minds podcast. Thanks for listening to us, please do if you have the opportunity rate and reviewers on Apple podcasts, or whichever platform you get your podcasts from a five star review would of course be greatly appreciated. But please do rate and review as if you have the opportunity. And thanks for listening once again to the Tougher Minds podcast Jon, what what types of exercise you talked about your your your interest in running or your your habit of running and also the the effort you make to take to walk and take steps what other specific types of exercise that are more beneficial than others for our brain state. And for this, this state of, of mental activation that you talked about?

Your exercise has an impact on brain function. And there are good studies looking into this. And for example, what I might describe as weightlifting, but going to the gym, maybe go into the gym, sort of strength and conditioning type exercises seem to be beneficial for insight. And probably because insight actually happens counter intuitively not when you’re trying to consciously solve a problem. But when you’ve actually switched away from that problem consciously your brain is still working out, you know, the Eureka moment when that answer to the problem emerges.

That’s because you’ve switched the switch off away from it. But we know that the dominant exercise we’re designed to do is to walk and be a little bit of running up to 12 miles a day. So that’s the type of exercise it is releasing BDNF, you know connected to the Eureka moment, how often did people experience going for a run, cycle into work, or just walking, walk constantly.

Suppose now and having a problem that you couldn’t resolve, and then all of a sudden, 10 minutes after you’ve stopped, you sit down and the answer emerges into your mind because of how your brain works, and exercises, speeding up speeding up the process. So you know, accumulating steps is, is what we really encourage people to do….you don’t have to go to the gym.

We have a walking treadmill, or a workstation treadmill. So essentially a standing desk that has a treadmill attached to it. Wow. Which is high tech technology week because we really value the importance of exercise. A step down from that is we see increasingly our clients have standing desks, standing workstations, sometimes that’s for postural things, but you know, people also understand the increased importance of that. But you don’t have to have those, those devices, you can just get out around the block. If you live in a rainy country like the UK buy an umbrella or buy some waterproofs, but just building that habit of getting up and moving around is probably the most important thing we can do. And probably the easiest one to do actually. It doesn’t take any equipment. You don’t need any special clothing to do it.

Maybe take a spare pair of shoes, if you have to dress up when you go to work. But yes, but yes, so we really encourage people to accumulate more steps during the day.

And you just talked about the working context. And so you you would advise someone perhaps if they worked in a city of London or in an in a large office block or something to to maybe if possible, break up their bouts of work with just a very short period of walking or some walking somewhere walking to get your lunch or breaking up, maybe writing a report with with walking around. Is that right?

Yes, we get sucked into the trap of presenteeism. But I’d encourage you to think more about how efficient you are when you’re doing any bout of work. Or just being present isn’t the whole part of doing it well. And sometimes you’re going to have a more effective hour if you spend 10 minutes of the hour moving around. As you say we talked about walking bricks just going around and walking around the perimeter of the building inside if you need to around the floors, taking the stairs instead of taking the lift or the elevator. You know now we’re moving into an era where more people than ever are working from home. You know some companies are even starting not to have central offices anymore and they’re encouraging people to come And set them up for working at home.

So again, people might be very nervous and anxious that they’ve got to be sat there, you know, for eight hours solid doing work, but is that the most efficient and effective way for you to spend your time when I work from home sometimes, and so the colleagues and we encourage everyone that there should be trying to do a bout of exercise before they even start work like you would if you’re going to work. I encourage people to find several offices when they’re working from home one is at home, but find a couple of coffee shops as well around and about that you can use and they might walk to our second office in inverted commas. yes, so personally, I would, after maybe going from my room, maybe doing three hours of work in the office, I then get open and maybe walk 15 minutes to a coffee shop that I can work from, of my classical music, headphone headphone on my classical music, I can plug into, you know, have a clear plan of what I’m going to do when I when I get there to minimise distractions probably be seen by very miserable by other people, or maybe trying to be more sociable in a coffee shop. And then, you know, suppose people work in coffee shops, more is more common. And so you’re not quite as eccentric as you like becoming more common. yes, yes.

And then, you know, maybe going back to the home office, and then maybe finding somewhere else in the afternoon. So really encouraging people to plan to do exercise during the day, you know, and ultimately met that habit.

So that’s why I would encourage people to do in, not just when we’re in the office, but also
somewhere out when we’re working from home as well or working on the road, think about bouts of work and making those bouts of work as efficient and effective as possible. And a great way to spark not just BDNF in your brain, but also things like dopamine, which is essential for being efficient and effective. Dopamine, we often associate with the reward neurotransmitter, but it’s also your bread that serves butter. So you need if you’re going to be learning and being clever. Exercise also releases your adrenaline, which is also really important for learning well for being clever. So by doing a bout of exercise before you you do clever work, you’re priming your brain to be ready to be really efficient and effective. Ultimately, making it easier for you to be creative and innovative. And giving yourself and your organisation the best chance of being one step ahead of the competition.

So two things I’m going to ask you about in a moment, related to that. But I just want to say that this is the Tougher Minds podcast and if you want more resources to help you and your life and your work around things like how exercise can help you perform better mentally, then go to that’s our website, Tougher Minds there are plenty of resources and downloads available. You’ll find them on the homepage in the first instance and some interesting interactive activities as well do check out our website.

Jon, what I was going to ask you about then you just what you said dense how exercise can can improve the brain state and almost prime you to be clever and effective mentally, perhaps then you might suggest if a senior leader was going to have to give a presentation to some non-executive directors about some commercial performance or some aspects of a company like that, and then have to field perhaps searching and detailed questions on it is are you saying then the best thing to do would be to obviously do your preparation as you would do and all the empirical stuff in the report but perhaps get set up and then go for a walk and come back and ready for the meeting?

Yes, that would be one tactic you could use knowing and having written books about performing under pressure. Probably more complex than that, but yes, it’s certainly a tool you can use in your armoury to prepare yourself for anything that you want to do. Depending how what I might say in simple language is pumped up you want to be flexible, presentation will depend on what size you might want to do. maybe want to do a few setups and a few press ups before if that’s your thing.

If you want to carry a boxing trainer and hit some pads, if you want to if you want to calm yourself down as you’re walking along and focus on your breathing so I’m going to be focusing on breathing in for five seconds and alpha five seconds. But whatever you need to do in a tiger woods Do you need to be pumped up or are you earning elsewhere you need to be more calm and more relaxed to perform to your potential. Yes, it’s a good insight.

That’s one for the golfers listening out there. Like Tiger Woods was renowned for being a bit more aggressive in his demeanour and an Ellis I think his nickname was the Big Easy he was a bit more subdued in his demeanour. So yes, that’s that’s interesting. Obviously golf is very, very cerebral and a mental activity just as much as it is a physical one. You About lending including this idea of activity, not just intervals during the working day, but by extension within work itself. And you’re in your work with all sorts of organisations in the UK, and the US, I understand you’ve actually worked with them. And they have implemented this, where people are encouraged to implement this, this idea of constant exercise and activity through the working day. And they’ve seen the benefits.

Yes, it is coupled with people changing their internal workspaces, which is increasingly happening, especially our experience of the City of London, literally, people are transforming what their offices look like. So they’re introducing things like standing desks, etc.

But it’s often very, very simple things, you know, the saying of what got you here last year, won’t get you there next year, is all about time, you know, and nobody’s making any more time in the day this is 24 hours fix, right? So therefore, what people default to is, how, how can I cram as much as possible in any time I leave my desk, I am bleeding minutes, I think that’s the wrong way of looking at it. yes. When you’re, whenever you’re sitting at your desk, and you Your brain is not trying to be clever and effective, you are losing minutes. So people in the companies we work with are starting, you know, not just know, but try out the ideas of, and see the benefit of just getting away from their desk at lunchtime, even if it’s for 15 minutes just to get around the block. And just noticing that when they do come back, they do feel better, and they are able to be more efficient and effective.

And it sounds so simple, isn’t it the idea of taking a walk in brick, but we do what we are in the habit of doing. And it’s one thing knowing what you need to do. It’s another thing, making it into a habit. So many stories from people have still done tiny things differently, from five minutes extra, all the way through to go into the gym at lunchtime or something like that. But seeing huge benefits, having standing meetings, you know, that kind of stuff.

And I think what’s very compelling to people who work in a cerebral job, who are typically very educated, they want to know, but why? Why do I need to do this, so when you can start to explain the brain science that sits behind it. And the idea that this does increase brain function, that in our experience, it’s easier to compel colleagues to actually make the small changes that ultimately stack up to big benefits for the organisation, and also themselves, you know, in their own lives, it’s easier for them to be healthier, happier, and their best more often.

I mean, obviously, you’ve guided organisations and people, as you say, in this way, and they’ve implemented it, and it’s been very successful for them. But it’s your sense that there is a and I think you’ve probably answered this, but there’s a change in culture now that whereas if you’d have gone up and just left your desk in the middle of the day, they might have attracted strange looks from managers and colleagues.

But now, people realise the benefits of this, they realise what you’re trying to achieve…..yes, so a term we used to use a lot was personal brain management. And we want to empower people to be able to manage themselves, optimise their own performance. Increasingly good leaders are recognising that it’s not about standing over someone’s shoulder. It’s about empowering them with the right skills and the right knowledge to be able to build the kinds of habits that allow them that allow them to deliver the results. So as information guys, you use it, and we will judge you on your results. So if you want to be getting away from your desk, you do that, as long as you deliver the results. Fantastic. So I think that’s a win win all around for everybody. Because people on the ground feel more empowered, they feel that their organisation cares about them. Which makes brains work better as well. And ultimately, the organisation get the results that they’re looking for.

OK, we’re drawing to a close on this episode of the Tougher Minds podcast and we do appreciate listening to us. We hope the insights that we share are helpful for you in your life and work. Just wanted to touch on one more thing, Jon, obviously now we have the predominance in the society of the smartphone when and anyone who has an iPhone will see Apple has its own native app or the Health app. And they’re all the risk devices that fitness trackers that seem then to be almost a ready made support system for exercise people might be able to tap into to help trigger Then taking more exercise and being more active more often.

Yes, so this smartwatch technology, smartphone technology is very powerful. And we run on reminders we run on being reminded what to do. And actually there are several.
We have a change factor model in which there are nine. That’s a proprietary Tougher Minds model.

Among the nine core things that makes us do what we do in two of those big areas, is personal motivation. Well, why do I want to do more exercise? What’s in it, for me, could be a weight loss thing could equally be when it’s a faster route to promotion to a bigger salary, to get into that bigger house. So the kids can have a bedroom age, whatever it is, but we’ve got to ultimately connect to that big goal. Stop small behaviours, small behaviours, like work, walking and extra 2000 steps per day, then what the tracking technology allows us to do is to be more accurate in understanding and on self watching, watching our own behaviour, being aware, not just thinking, Oh, well, I did a bit more exercise today and yesterday. Now we can track it. But what I would say about that is that beware of what we call the licencing effect, right? Because we’ve seen if you’re going to track your exercise, and in particular our calories, you may also need to be more expert about the type of calories that you’re consuming.

And we’re seeing lots of people underestimate how many calories they’re consuming. So people thinking, Okay, well, I’ve walked to this coffee shop, it’s a bit further away for my morning break. So now actually, I can have that double chocolate chip muffin, fantastic. But what people are not recognising is that the walk they did only burned 100 calories, and there are 450 calories in the chocolate chip. So they’re starting to gain weight. So if you’re abusing your tracking devices, to think of your exercise like that, then beware just you can buy other apps that make it easy to track colour colour count, but as well as as well as steps. And actually connected to steps. Let’s think about this is that running up for everyone doing a marathon is not for everyone going to the gym is not for everyone. We all walk every day. yes.

So, often if I said to people out of 10 – you know – how much exercise did you do yesterday – with 10 being the best – they say zero. But people misunderstand the extent to which walking counts as exercise. And it’s the most, the thing that we typically do most of every day. Even if we drove right up to the front of the office this morning, we tried to get out of the car and walk somewhere. And what the science is very clearly shown is that when you just walk a little bit faster, the exercise benefits really shoot up. Right. So walking faster. perspiring, ideally all sweating is good. So when you walk into that coffee shop walk faster, it’s an easier way to just get just on the flat doesn’t have to be just just to get an even bigger benefit.

So walk faster. And often the trackers will tell you they’ll measure exercise. In the Apple Watch, it’s the green ring. They’ll measure exercise by how quickly your heart is beating. So it’s just about increasing intensity, which increases heart rate. So when you’re doing your walking breaks, and getting up to go speak to someone is that is instead of sending them an email, going out to lunch, walking around the block at lunchtime, go for a walk after evening meal. Think about not just the wall but actually am I doing the slow walk so maybe after the evening meal, you want to do a slow walk as you’re calming everything down. But maybe at lunchtime, you want to do a faster walk because you want to get back to the desk and really hit it hard after lunch to energise yourself.

Yes, that kind of thing. And the other type of exercise that we know is really important is doing some what we would call in Sport Science strength training, which might be you know, mowing the lawn or the weekend or you carry the shopping home instead of getting someone else to do it. But just just working out those muscles you might just be doing, you know 10 Press ups and 10 sit ups every day. We know that’s important for overall health and brain health as well. So it’s something to build on and you know, the NHS are really good guidelines about all this stuff on their website. So often wealth from managers perspective, their age specific OPT, optimal exercise levels to be doing as well. So I’d really recommend that you check out that resource.

Well, Jon, thanks so much again. That’s a fantastic again practical, applicable overview of how you can use exercise beneficially for your, for your life and work for your mental performance for your brain state and for your effectiveness. Thanks very much for listening. Once again to the top of minds podcast, we think it’s a great idea. If you share these insights with people perhaps you can find a friend, a colleague or a partner and discuss them and work together to implement some of them in your life and your work. This has been the top of minds podcast thanks for listening

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