What if there was one habit that could achieve all of the following:
- Improve your learning ability and grow brain cells
- Alleviate stress, anger, anxiety, and depression
- Increase focus, attention, and alertness
- Improve mood
- Build self-control, resilience, and motivation
- Boost confidence and social activity
- Reduce the risk of age-related disorders such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other forms of dementia
Not to mention strengthen your cardiovascular system, lower blood pressure, regulate glucose levels, reduce obesity, boost your immune system, and fortify your bones.
If one habit could do all of this, would you build it into your lifestyle?
It turns out that this habit does exist, and it has been scientifically proven to do all of the above.
This habit is called exercise.
John J. Ratey, M.D. details all of this in his best-selling book, Spark, calling exercise "the single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain function." Ratey is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, a widely recognized expert in neuropsychiatry, and has conducted extensive research to prove the remarkable effects of exercise on the brain. I highly recommend Spark for anyone who would like to better understand how exercise improves brain health.
But if you are short on time and just want to quickly know what to do, here is Ratey's recommended exercise regimen for optimal brain performance:
- At a minimum, we should be following the public heath recommendations, which call for some type of moderate-intensity aerobic activity for 30 minutes at least five days a week.
- Going a step further, Ratey says it is best to do some form of aerobic activity six days a week, for 45 minutes to one hour. Go on the longer side for four of the days at moderate intensity (65-75 percent of your maximum heart rate), and then two of the days should be on the shorter side at high intensity (75-90 percent). Make sure not to do the high-intensity days back-to-back in order to let your body and brain recover.
- For your aerobic exercise, activities like running, cycling, or swimming are great, but the best type of aerobic activity is really whatever you will truly be able to build into your lifestyle. If you haven't been active in a while, the best way to begin is to start walking.
- On your shorter, high-intensity days, add some form of strength or resistance training to build muscles, strengthen bones, and protect joints (do three sets of your exercises at weights that allows you to do 10-15 repetitions in each set).
- Make efforts to mix in more complex activities that will build skills, challenge the brain, and help you stay agile -- for example rock climbing, martial arts, gymnastics, dance, yoga, pilates, or balance drills. Racket sports are especially great because they simultaneously tax the cardiovascular system and the brain. According to Ratey, "The combination of challenging the brain and body has a greater positive impact than aerobic exercise alone."
- Ratey talks up the benefits of exercising with other people. Social interaction is great for health, reduces stress, and boosts motivation. "Exercise cues up the building blocks of learning, and social interaction cements them in place," says Ratey. So consider joining an exercise group to get going and keep you on track.
Overall, Ratey's advice for people is to "get fit and then continue challenging themselves." He advises to do something almost every day, but keep your program flexible and keep adapting to try new things.
Exercise is incredibly powerful for both the mind and body. We're awake for at least 16 hours each day. Spending just one of those hours (or even half an hour) exercising will be the most important thing you do all day!