The link between physical and mental agility

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Maybe this scenario sounds familiar to you: You’re sitting in a weekly update meeting at work, the head of your department has just finished explaining the details of a problem he’s been experiencing and calls out for input.  Everyone starts chiming in with their ideas within seconds of the floor being open, but you can’t seem to organize your thoughts quickly enough. Within 5 minutes a solution is settled on, without your voice ever being heard, and now your boss is moving on to the next topic of discussion. Later that night you’re lying in bed and EUREKA! An even better solution comes to you. The solution you should have thought of 10 hours earlier.  

None of us know how long we have here in this physical form.  This means that being responsive or agile enough to give our best to every opportunity is one of the most useful skills that can be honed. Many of the situations we deem as “stressful or overwhelming” only seem that way because we simply haven’t properly prepared our minds and bodies to be agile enough to express our full intellectual capability no matter the circumstances involved.  So how can we prepare ourselves? While it may not be a magic bullet, physical activity may open the door for increased mental agility and alertness.

While many studies have focused on the importance of regular physical activity as a way of improving physical health and delaying mortality, there have also been numerous studies which have shown that physical activity can delay age-related cognitive decline and the onset of neurodegenerative diseases.  Among other changes that happen when we participate in regular physical activity such as enlargement of the hippocampus, it seems even a single session of physical exercise has a significantly larger impact on Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor serum levels (a protein found in the brain that stimulates growth of new neurons and neural stem cells) than either mindfulness practice or cognitive training.

In short, physical activity has been proven to increase brain flexibility and adaptability, which translates to athletes having higher attention skills than sedentary people. It’s important to note that these brain changes are associated with aerobic activity, not activities such as stretching.  It’s generally understood that the effect of a combined training program which includes aerobic, coordination and cognitive demands is one of the best ways to improve cognition. For example, those associated with dancing, ball sports, martial arts or exergames (videogames with an exercise component).

 These studies show that the physical changes that occur in our body when we play don’t just affect our body in an isolated way, they affect our brain and how we look at and respond to all events in life.  Experientially this mind body connection shouldn’t be much of a stretch. For most children the most thrilling parts of the school day are P.E. and recess. Simply put activity makes us more open and receptive to life. 

As our bodies mature through the stages of life this sense of exhilaration and openness that we experience from sport and games doesn’t simply stop or even decline. Games, particularly sport, can open up a sense of abandon and alertness that is needed throughout every moment of our lives.  Unfortunately, culturally we’ve relegated play as a “fringe benefit” of childhood, so most adults aren’t conscious of the connection between mental agility and physical activity because we simply don’t allow ourselves that “luxury” long enough to reap the benefits.

 So what can you do today to stop the cycle? Start simple; make time and pick a game or sport to learn that’s fun, gets your heart rate up for 45 minutes to an hour and throw yourself wholeheartedly into it. When you start to laugh and feel like a fool because you’re not doing anything right, that’s a clue that you’re probably doing everything right. It might just be your first step towards experiencing what it looks like to unabashedly throw yourself into life.

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