How Exercise Makes You Better at Your Job
Exercise boosts mental fitness, too.
Note: This first appeared in the Peak Performance Newsletter, which I coauthor with Steve Magness. For additional and exclusive content, subscribe here.
Thanks to increasing globalization and human-replacing technology, the bar for intellectual performance is higher than ever. As a result, workplace doping — or the illegal use of drugs such as Adderall and other stimulants to enhance cognitive performance — is growing rapidly. But there is a far more healthy and ethical way to get the same, if not greater, mental boost. Exercise.
Now I’m not a professional athlete — as a writer, I’m far from it — but I do treat exercise like it’s a part of my job. And, I do this for good reason. Although exercise is commonly thought of as something that is good for physical fitness and health down the road (e.g., prevention of cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and osteoporosis) it also brings immediate benefits for mental fitness.
Three neurotransmitters — serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine — are integral to brain function. Serotonin influences mood. Norepinephrine heightens perception. Dopamine regulates attention and satisfaction. When these neurotransmitters are in balance, the brain is ready for optimal functioning. When they are out of balance, however, cognitive ability suffers, and in severe cases, psychiatric disorders may arise.
Many drugs used to treat mental health disorders, including those implicated in workplace doping, individually target serotonin, norepinephrine, or dopamine. Yet, as John Ratey, psychiatrist and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, explains, “simply raising or lowering the level of a neurotransmitter does not elicit a crisp one-to-one result because the system is so complex.” The effectiveness of exercise, however, is unmatched because it seems to promote an ideal balance of neurotransmitters.
Researchers have found that after a single 35-minute aerobic (fast walking or running) treadmill session, creativity and cognitive flexibility — the ability to think about multiple concepts at once — improve significantly. Another study found that even just a 6-minute walk can increase creativity. These findings are especially intriguing because cognitive flexibility and creativity are cornerstones of numerous jobs. Beyond professional work, exercise is also associated with better academic performance, which is why I firmly believe that meaningful phys-ed should be a primary focus for educators. It’s ironic that phys-ed gets cut for more time in math and science when phys-ed not only improves one’s ability to do math and science, but also helps develop healthy people. How can this not be a priority at a time when many consider the rising costs of healthcare to be the most serious threat facing the economy?
Now I’m not a professional athlete — far from it — but I do treat exercise like it’s a part of my job.
In addition to priming the brain for acute bouts of cognitive work — be them professional or academic — exercise simultaneously promotes long-term brain development by triggering the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a neurochemical that Ratey told me is like “Miracle-Gro for the brain.”
BDNF fuels a process called neurogenesis, which spawns new brain cells and facilitates connections between them. The link between exercise and BDNF helps explain mounting evidence that exercise lowers risk for and delays the progression of degenerative neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Pushing yourself physically teaches you to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Finally, and what I think is perhaps exercise’s greatest benefit, pushing yourself physically teaches you to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. In other words, stressing your body inside the gym helps make your entire being more resistant to stress outside of the gym. (This is a fascinating topic in and of itself, and one that I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about. Read more here.)
So, if you want to enhance your mental fitness, and do so in a perfectly legal and safe way, you should prioritize exercise in your life. This message is not particularly new. Modern science is simply proving what the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Thales began preaching over 2,000-years-ago: Sound body and sound mind go hand-in-hand.
If you’re not getting the support you need from your employer, I encourage you to share this story with them. The evidence is overwhelming. As more and more employers become aware of this, I expect (and hope) more and more employers to support and encourage daily physical practices.
Thanks for reading. If you found this story interesting, I’d be honored if you followed me on Twitter @Bstulberg and checked out my new book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success, where the above concepts are explored in greater detail.
Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He is a columnist at New York Magazine and Outside Magazine.