How to Grow New Brain Cells and Outwit Competitors

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So, here we are at the final stop in our three part series.

In Daily Practices That Fuel Epic Journeys, we learned how powerful Building-In Space away from a challenge is in finding a breakout solutions. In part two, we discovered the power of Attentional Training, a tool that allows you to master stress, cultivate your professional edge and boost critical thinking and problem solving abilities. Now, it’s time for the final “A.”

Time to get “A”ctive!

Huh? That’s right. The final piece in the peak-performance puzzle is exercise…but, not for the reasons you might think.

Sure, we all know we’re supposed to be exercising for our health, to lose and keep of weight, to stop bone loss, to decrease risk of a host of life-limiting disease and to look better naked. But, what you may not know is that certain types of exercise actually have a profound impact on your cognitive and creative processes. One type even grows new brain cells, something thought impossible until just a few years ago.

Put another way, the right kinds of exercise can make you smarter and add to your ability to cultivate and maintain your business edge. But, before we get there, lets take a quick look at two often missed professional benefit of exercise.

Exercise lets you work longer and harder than your competition

The ancient sages of Aristotle’s time knew the impact of exercise on intellect. In fact, back then, a critical element of your training as a scholar was intense daily exercise. Why? Because thinking critically and solving problems, pondering complex mathematical equations or philosophical issues was grueling work. It took a toll on both the body and the mind. And, here is where the connection comes in.

When you are out of shape, inactive, overweight, overtired or physically compromised, your physical state crushes your ability to excel intellectually in two distinct ways.

One, pain and discomfort become a constant distraction to your ability to fully engage your mind in the process of thinking. We all know this to be true through own experience. Think about it. If your back is constantly aching, if your weight is drenching you in sweat, if something hurts from the time you open your eyes until the moment you go to bed, those sensations become constant distractions to the work that needs to get done.

The great yogic sages of India knew this, too, though the process was a bit different. In yoga the quest is more for enlightenment or unification with your divine self. One of the most effective ways to attain this ultimate state was through increasing bouts of daily meditation, often for extended periods of time.

To be able to sit for that long, though, was extremely difficult. Because, within minutes, every previously minor nagging discomfort would blossom into full blown, hugely distracting pain and discomfort. So, they created a system of physical practices that included exercise in order to better prepare the body to no longer distract the mind for the process of evolving. Which bring us to the second realization about exercise and the thinking process…

Two – Just as an out-of-shape, pained body becomes a constant distraction to hard intellectual work, a fit, able body becomes bio-chemical, structural and emotional support system that allows you to work harder, longer and more intensely than most others around you. Your “physical” abilities actually translate to an increased ability to develop your intellectual capacity.

This is especially true because you will likely be competing against many others who do not take care of their bodies and are likely battling the thought-distracting impact of their unconditioned state. Don’t expect this to last long, though, because more and more professionals, especially at the highest levels are becoming hip to the professional impact of exercise. So, if you are looking to compete on their level, exercise is simply a mandatory part of the equation.

Exercise “biggifies” your brain (and makes you hotter, but that’s for another post)!

For those not convinced by the wisdom of the sages and the growing experience of high-level exec’s all over the world, there is a growing body of science that now proves the impact of exercise on your brain’s everyday and “executive” functions—complex problem-solving, decision-making and planning.

  • Exercise doubles late-day efficiency – A classic NASA study contrasted the work-efficiency of employees who exercised versus that of those who did not. During the last two-hours of an eight-hour day, the non-exercisers efficiency dropped dramatically by 50%. At the same time, those employees who exercised maintained near 100% efficiency, allowing them to accomplish twice the amount of work in the final two hours of the day. Exercise actually breeds efficiency.
  • Fittest bodies yield the fittest brains – In a 2007 study of 259 third and fourth graders, kids who were the fittest, as measured by a variety of flexibility, strength and cardiovascular benchmarks, scored higher in math and reading than their less fit counterparts in statewide standardized tests, even controlling for socio-economic and other outside factors.
  • Exercise has immediate impact on productivity and interpersonal performance at work – A 2005 study of 210 workers by Professor Jim McKenna at Leeds Metropolitan University revealed that, on the day that employees exercise, not only their mood, but their work performance was substantially improved, as measured by their ability to manage their time, increase output, and improve mental and interpersonal performance.
  • Aerobic exercise grows brain cells responsible for executive function – According to an October 2007 Newsweek article, a series of recent studies by Professor Arthur Kramer, a psychologist at the University of Illinois and others, show daily aerobic exercise can actually grow new brain cells, especially in the hippocampus, the area that controls memory and learning, and the frontal lobes, which are chiefly responsible for executive functions. Dozens of studies back this up, yielding improved performance on psychological tests, the ability to answer question more quickly and accurately. Interestingly, the research also seems to show that there is a use it or lose effect once you are well into adulthood. Stop exercising and the increases quickly fade.

Top executives turn to exercise to keep their edge

Beyond the research and history of exercise and its impact upon professional performance, you only need to look at the make-up of the executive suite these days to know the critical nature of exercise in professional excellence. Increasingly, those who aspire to professional greatness hold their daily workout sacred and those seeking to hold onto their seats at the table view fitness not just as a way to look and feel better, but a mission-critical business tool.

So, now the ball’s in your court

If you are not yet exercising or it’s been a while, now is the time to get back into the active flow. Added to Building-in Space and Training Your Attention—you have three powerful daily practices whose impact will quickly compound to yield some pretty astonishing changes in your thought-processes and professional performance.

“Stepping Away” from challenges and Building-in Space is a practice that you can deliberately integrate into the way you approach your professional problem-solving strategy. You can begin it today and see it’s affect nearly immediately.

“Training Your Attention” will take a bit more time, but is eminently worth the effort. 

“Getting Active” will require you to do a number of things. One, if you’ve been inactive for more than a few months or you have any other medical or orthopedic conditions that might weigh on your choice of and approach to getting active, you’ll need to make a quick visit to your qualified health care provider to get her/his input.

Once approved, you’ll need to make time in your day. And, as we’ve seen above, carving out this time will make you so much more efficient that the process of exercising, itself, literally creates the extra time needed to exercise. It’s a gorgeous positive reinforcement cycle, once you’ve begun.

Next, and this will likely be your greatest challenge, you’ll need to explore activities, setting and guides/trainers/instructors to find what works best for you and inspires not boredom, hatred and drop-out, but joy, comradery and a enjoyment. If that sounds like a mega-challenge, honestly, it is.

But, IT IS POSSIBLE to love exercise if you know how to approach the process. In fact, done right, you may even learn to love exercise more than sex!

Please share your comments, questions and thoughts in the comment section below.

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23 responses

23 responses to “How to Grow New Brain Cells and Outwit Competitors”

  1. Sue says:

    Hi J, high intensity cardio exercise coupled with high level balance training also regenerated nerve cells in the substantia nigra in lab rats. great news for Parkinson’s patients. of course, you could break a foot attempting this:)

  2. Lol, have you been reading my mind? I’m pretty zealous about exercise. Mainly because it’s essential to my mental health. Regular exercise keeps me happy as well as fit although I’m never going to be running any marathons.

    Lately I’ve been so focused on my career that exercise has slipped. And guess what? Inspiration and motivation have slipped too.

    So it’s back to the early morning walks, my exercise DVDs and my weekly dance class.

    Here’s to our good health:)

  3. Tammy says:

    So after a week’s kiteboarding, my hippocampus should be huge?!

    I’ve never put it to the test with memory and decision making skills as such, but I know for sure that after a kiting session I’m calmer and more focused; I’ve burned away some off that excessive, fidgety energy and the world is clearer.

    I don’t suppose it’s a coincidence that nearly all the super-successful entrepreneurs I know, and know of, are exercise junkies. Marathon runners, kite-surfers, rock-climbers. And while they’re getting their kicks from the challenge, it looks like their also sharpening their business skills. It almost sounds like a too-good-to-be-true magic formula!

  4. Leisa says:

    Excellent series, Jonathan. I am using several of the resources you listed in the Training your Attention post, and just scheduled my exercise regimen through June. It is includes yoga, two days of stair climbing (actual 60 story buildings, not just stairmaster) mt. biking and high-intensity weight-training. I need to keep that mind sharp just to keep up with my calendar. But you are right on, I find my overall energy and clarity of thought is directly proportional to my activity level. Skipping workouts to do work = counterproductive. I’m gonna remember that.

  5. No doubt. I was baked yesterday and then went out with friends on a leg shattering, lung busting three hour mountain bike ride up into the mountains. Came home and was focused and ready to rock. ~ Sharkman

  6. Brenda Jones says:

    I find this blog to be more than true! I’ve noticed with myself if I don’t exercise, I’m more tired and would nap often during the day which would result little work done. Once I started exercising, I’m so much more alert and was more productive with my work. Plus, more healthier! 🙂

    I always encourage my clients to exercise to for those reasons and they swear it really helps!

  7. Leif Eriksen says:

    So are you telling us that Einstein, Newton, Churchill, Freud, Darwin, Galileo, Edison, etc. were all fit freaks? Or does this mind-body connection only apply to those of us with average intellects? Personally, I exercise because it helps me free my mind from the its preoccupation with survival (see http://leiferiksen.wordpress.com/2009/10/17/running-out-of-my-mind/). Any other benefits are secondary.

  8. patrick says:

    After falling way short of a 50k trail run goal last year, I lost my voracious appetite for exercise. While still remaining quite active, after about five months my body started screaming, “I need more!”. In March I started cross training combining trail running with P90x.

    Holy crap!
    It’s amazing.
    And it wasn’t until after a month of doing it, that I realized that my brain had been screaming for it too.

    My physical and mental energy, at this point, is off the charts.

    Try it!

  9. An excellent post! One of my favorite books – Brain Rules – talks about this very connection.

  10. Joey Atlas says:

    Excellent post, Jonathan! (not too sure about the “better than sex” part 😉

    But the rest of the post is awesome. For most people who follow this blog – it could easily become part of their “corporate wellness” program – providing biz tax savings, etc… Therefore giving even MORE reasons to get your a$$ in gear on a daily basis.

    It doesn’t take much to set up a simple yet very effective ‘small gym’ area in your office or your home office. And by saving travel time – you put yourself in a better position to make your program a lifelong habit – loaded with a multitude of benefits – not just for you – but those around you as well.

    Don’t be like everybody else… Be fit.

    Joey Atlas

  11. Jeffrey Tang says:

    Nice little twist on the conventional image of the scrawny scholar and the brawny brawler (apparently I’m feeling poetic today.)

  12. Yes! Now I don’t have to feel guilty for spending time working out that I “should” be spending on my business–thanks so much!

  13. Irene Ross says:

    This was a terrific post, Jonathan! As a health coach, I’m frequently discussing the importance of exercise to my clients–one more validation!

    Thank you so much, as always, I get so much from your posts.

    Irene Ross

  14. Anne Galivan says:

    I know you HAD to have put that “love exercise more than sex” comment in to get attention…right?! I mean, I exercise regularly and do love it, but more than sex? Ain’t never gonna happen! 😉

  15. […] to Grow New Brain Cells and Out­wit Com­peti­tors http://www.jonathanfields.com/blog/ceo-secret-weapon-visionary-strategies-part-three-get-active/ I’m try­ing to get myself into exer­cis­ing at this point in time and this post gave me even […]

  16. […] Fields does a great job of addressing this in his recent post How to Grow New Brain Cells and Outwit Competitors. In it, he describes the awesome benefits of being in shape: “..a fit, able body becomes […]

  17. […] Fields has a great post on how to use physical exercise to be more productive. 5 Keys For Improving Your Lifestyle For […]

  18. Jesse says:

    This was a great post. I linked to it on the fan page for the company I work for. We are working on some software to help employers track the health and physical activity of their employees. Giving them a way to reward employees that are staying active and healthy.

  19. […] How To Grow New Brain Cells and Outwit Competitors is another knock-it-out-of-the-park post by Jonathan Fields. He illustrates how physical fitness leads to success in his series on Fueling Epic Journeys. Get ready to fuel your own when you join Zia Hassan, who posted not long ago on this blog about How To Get Into The Best Creative Shape of Your Life. How similar are building muscle and building brain cells? What does that mean for the creative spirit? I’ll let you be the judge. […]

  20. […] through them without losing your mind and watching your body decompose. That means, like it or not, some kind of daily movement or exercise and some form of attentional/mindset training are not only important in your quest to stay focused, […]

  21. […] through them without losing your mind and watching your body decompose. That means, like it or not, some kind of daily movement or exercise and some form of attentional/mindset training are not only important in your quest to stay focused, […]

  22. […] through them without losing your mind and watching your body decompose. That means, like it or not, some kind of daily movement or exercise and some form of attentional/mindset training are not only important in your quest to stay focused, […]

  23. […] How To Grow New Brain Cells and Outwit Competitors is another knock-it-out-of-the-park post by Jonathan Fields. He illustrates how physical fitness leads to success in his series on Fueling Epic Journeys. Get ready to fuel your own when you join Zia Hassan, who posted not long ago on this blog about How To Get Into The Best Creative Shape of Your Life. How similar are building muscle and building brain cells? What does that mean for the creative spirit? I’ll let you be the judge. […]