Don’t exercise just for your body, exercise for your brain too.
Why do we feel so good when we exercise? According to John Ratey, MD, “The real reason we feel so good when we get our blood pumping is that it makes the brain function at its best, and in my view, this benefit of physical activity is far more important — and fascinating — than what it does for the body.”
Ratey’s book Spark details Naperville 203, a high school outside Chicago, as they take the journey of connecting exercise to academic performance. It’s a great overall read, but here are the highlights regarding Naperville:
- The Zero Hour students wear heart rate monitors intending to get their heart rate in the 80% to 90% range of maximum heart rate. Students are rated on how well they achieve their heart rate goal, not athletic ability.
- Academic results quickly followed. At the end of the semester, the Zero Hour class showed a 17% improvement in reading and comprehension, compared to 10.7% for their non-exercising counterparts.
- The impressive results kept coming. Compared to a sister school in the Chicago area, Naperville was spending only 58% of the sister school’s budget per student, but outscoring them on mandatory state tests. For the 2005 graduating class, Naperville’s student’s composite ACT score was 24.8, well above the state average of 20.1.
- But wait, there’s more. On the 1999 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study exam, Naperville students scored first in the world on the science section and sixth in the world on the math section.
How can you use this information yourself? Besides supporting more physical activity within the school system, here are some additional findings detailed in Spark that may be of interest:
- German researchers found that people learned vocabulary words 20% faster following exercise than they did before exercise.
- The ideal time to engage with cognitively challenging tasks is right after rigorous exercise. A 2007 study showed that cognitive flexibility improves after a single 35-minute treadmill session at 30% or 70% of maximum heart rate.
- Engage with sports that tax both your cardiovascular system and the brain, like tennis or karate. Reacting to the movements of others puts further demands on your attention, strengthening your brain. The more complex the movements, the stronger the synaptic connections will be.
- A 2004 University of England study found that workers who used the company gym were more productive and felt better able to handle their workloads. Overall, they felt better about their work and less stressed when they exercised.
- For individuals challenged with ADHD, a 2006 study showed that walking as few as three days a week for six months, improved working memory, allowing for better focus.
- A Finnish study of 3,403 individuals showed that those who exercised two to three times per week experienced significantly less depression, anger, stress, and “cynical distrust” than those who exercised less or not at all.
- A 2004 London study found that even 10 minutes of exercise was enough to defeat an alcoholic’s craving.
- An Australian study of menopausal women showed that 84% of women who exercised two or more times per week felt less tense, tired, and fatigued.
- A 2001 Quebec study of 4,615 individuals over 65 reporting high levels of activity were 50% less likely than their peers to develop any form of dementia.
According to Ratey, here’s how exercise keeps you going:
- It strengthens the cardiovascular system.
- It regulates fuel (insulin).
- It reduces obesity.
- It elevates your stress threshold.
- It lifts your mood.
- It boosts the immune system.
- It fortifies your bones.
- It boosts motivation.
- It fosters neuroplasty.
Personally speaking, one of the best tips in the book is to keep your exercise social and flexible. Group dynamics add a level of fun to exercising. And, by mixing up your routine, you’ll continue to adapt and challenge yourself, and hopefully stave off boredom.
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