What if there was a magic pill that would drastically reduce depression and anxiety, that would sharpen the mind, and that would even help people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to focus better. What if the side effect of this drug was better overall health and a longer lifespan?
In his book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, psychiatrist and Harvard professor, John Ratey, breaks down the physiology and chemistry of the brain and explains how aerobic exercise remodels our brains for peak performance. As an ADHD sufferer myself, I now understand why I am so much more effective when I exercise regularly. Ratey also explains, in understandable terms, why exercise is so import to brain health and overall well-being.
It is undeniable that a regular aerobic exercise regimen of 30 minutes a day will deliver measurable improvement in mental capacity. The side effects are also a little easier to swallow than most drugs, prescription or otherwise. Exercise will improve our sleep, make us look better, increase our creativity, brighten our outlook on life, and reduce the probability of the onset of dementia by around 50%, just to name a few.
So what’s the connection between exercise and leadership? Being a great leader takes considerable knowledge and it is demands our constant mental attention. As we advance in leadership, the issues change, they get more complex, and we therefore need to learn more and become even more self-aware. In other words, we need to keep learning and adapting. We need our minds to be in top form or we risk falling behind, letting down our team, and not realizing our own personal potential.
In my work with other leaders this topic rarely comes up. Sadly, the typical brain talk I hear often is about caffeine and alcohol (or worse) as prescriptions for our stress and the long hours demanded of us. The tool of our trade is our brain and we often don’t treat it right. In this regard, many of us are acting like a carpenter doing fine work with dull chisels.
I have been working out, off and on, for many years. I have often struggled with the conflict between knowing that working out is good for me and knowing that I have a long list of important things to do that are not getting done while I’m exercising. Until I read Spark, it never really entered my mind that the exercise was doing far more than improving my physical well-being. It was sharpening my mind. By doing an aerobic workout, I am giving myself better mental tools to work with every day. Better tools mean better work in less time. In other words, there is an amount of time I can spend working out every day that will pay back more time than I spend working out. When I think about the time I spend in a mental funk during a typical day, not really focused, this begins to make sense.
If you are serious about leadership, you should be adding regular exercise to your list of essential activities. I highly recommend Ratey’s book if you want to get into the details of how exercise will sharpen your mind and improve your metal capacity.