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.
Neither of us are professional athletes (one of us was never even close) but we both treat exercise like it’s a part of our job. And, we 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, 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. However, John Ratey, psychiatrist and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, explains that “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 office jobs. Beyond the workplace, exercise is also associated with better academic performance, which is why we think meaningful phys-ed should be a primary focus for educators.
In addition to priming the brain for acute bouts of cognitive work, exercise simultaneously promotes long-term brain development by triggering the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a neurochemical that Ratey says 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.
Finally, and what we 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 immune to stress outside of the gym. (This is a fascinating topic in and of itself. 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.
Make Exercise a Part of Your Job Starting Now
If exercise isn’t already a part of your job, here are some tips on how to make it one. Much of this really comes down to a mindset shift: once you start viewing exercise as an integral part of your work, you’ll be more likely to do it. If you aren’t getting the support you need from your employer, we encourage you to respectfully enlighten them on the brain-boosting benefits of exercise. Send them this newsletter and the articles we linked to, and have a conversation about it. As this message spreads, we expect more employers catch on.
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