When I started learning about executive function skills, one of the concepts that seemed to keep coming up again and again was the impact of exercise on the brain.
We all know that exercise is good for just about everything. If I have a day when I am really physically active (complete with sweat), I sleep more deeply and not only does my body feel good, I psychologically feel good. But I regularly come up with a million reasons to avoid it.
Exercise – particularly breaking a sweat – increases blood flow throughout the whole body. I now know that it also increases the synthesis of Brain Derived Neutrophic Factor (BDNF) about threefold. BDNF is in the hippocampus and cortex – areas critical to learning, memory, higher thinking and long term memory. The more I read about this, the more pressure I felt to improve my exercise regimen. Or at least start one.
Exercise is like Miracle Grow for the brain
~ Marydee Sklar
At the beginning of 2018, I set a goal of walking 500 miles in the year. This was inspired by my sister who set (and completed) a 500 mile walking goal in 2017. I figured if she could do it, I could too. I don’t like to be left behind if a good idea is in play and on January 1, it seemed like an easily doable goal.
Sometime before the end of that month, I started feeling behind so I decided to break my goal into smaller steps (unintentional pun there). I came up with 42 miles a month which meant that five days a week, I had to walk two miles a day. In keeping with my lazy attitude toward exercise, I quickly calculated that meant eight to nine days each month where I wouldn’t have to walk.
I have a fairly strong Goal Directed Persistence (that means my brain likes to finish things) so I started keeping track of my daily, weekly and monthly miles to make sure I got to 500. There were not too many months when I walked more than 42 miles and there were more than a couple when I didn’t, so I had to spend extra time in December catching up. I am happy to say that on December 30, 2018, I hit mile number 500. I was a mile away from the house and since I didn’t have a ride home, I actually walked 501 miles in 2018. Yeah baby!
I like to think I gave my brain a good, long dose of Miracle Grow in 2018 but I rarely broke a sweat so in all honesty, it was probably a diluted dose. But I did experience an unexpected side effect that has prompted me to commit to walking another 500 miles in 2019:
Your best thinking about work doesn’t happen when you are at work
~ David Allen
When I was out on my almost–daily march, I had the best insights about all kinds of things: curriculum for my classes, creative ideas about marketing, solutions to troubles, and even some very good advice to pass on to my kids – which they graciously listened to and sometimes even followed.
Not only was it a welcome break from sitting, the walk cleared the cobwebs and consistently gave me a fresh perspective.When we are using our executive function skill of Sustained Attention/Focus, we are concentrating our mental energy in one direction. Walking allows our resting brain function aka the default mode network to become active. This is the part of our brains that has to do with “creative incubation”. I have sat at my desk all day long trying to get my conscious brain to find a solution or novel answer to something. But it was only when I allowed my brain to do its work on a subconscious level (away from my frontal lobe), when deeper concepts were able to connect and I would have a grand “Aha!” moment on the walking path.
Science shows that your brain’s resting-state circuitry, called the default mode network (DMN) — which is activated when you stop thinking about something specific and just veg out — is the best place to park a problem. In the DMN, your brain does some of its best, wisest, and most creative work.
~ Debbie Hampton
Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience published a study that measured the specific brain structure of “previously sedentary adults” aged 59 to 80 who agreed to walk (at their own pace) for 40 minutes three times a week. At the end of one year, fMRIs showed that the walkers had significant improvement in the connectivity of the default mode network in their brains.
The greater the connectivity of the default mode network, the better we are able to handle cognitive tasks as well as use our executive function skills like planning, scheduling, dealing with ambiguity, and working memory.
No wonder I’m in for another 500 miles this year!