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Post-COVID, I’m an executive juggling a hybrid work environment, working at the office part-time while at home so I can spend more time with my husband and the twins. I love my career but I admit I do feel a bit overwhelmed — work is hectic and my kids need attention. I feel like I’m constantly pulled in all directions… and I really also wish I had more time to work on myself. What can I do to manage my time better and make my life easier?
I hear you! Congratulations because you seem to have it together with a successful career and family, and the opportunity to work in a hybrid setting. Work-life balance is important.
You can go into my past articles for techniques to increase mood and productivity but I will give you another take on the best thing you can do for your life and career: exercise.
Why? It is a brain-booster and makes life more “effortless.” Every time you move your body you are releasing a whole bunch of neural chemicals that change you physically, mentally and physiologically for the better.
Self-care is health care.
I have personal proof: exercise is a brain boost
I’ve been road cycling for over a decade, and a former gym rat, Crossfit-lover, and a Grouse Grind and hot yoga aficionado. I study health and nutrition science in my spare time as a hobby because I’m all about peak performance and wellness.
One day after I came home from a long 70km bike ride, I sat down to get some work before dinner.
I find myself delving right into deep work. It was so easy.
I got so much done in a short amount of time. I was perplexed at how effortless it was. I quickly made the connection: exercise.
My fitness story
My dad was a triathlete growing up. He taught us to swim and bike, and we were always doing something active. But by the time we were in high school, he was constantly always nagging at my mom, sister and me because we were “lazy.”
I got my first gym membership at 16 with my best friend and of course, like many people, I was proud of myself if I made it there twice a month.
- Problem: In 2007, when I was 20 when I was at the beginning of my career in video games. I was always lean growing up but I gained over 20 pounds from school and free food in my tech company. I wasn’t happy with myself… we can have all the insights we want but that doesn’t always translate to action.
- Trigger: Everything is a choice but sometimes you need a little push: a trigger. I went for a bike ride one day and I could barely make it uphill. I felt gross. I had always been active growing up and now I was weak and overweight. I decided I didn’t want to feel this way anymore so I chose to start doing something different.
- Solution: I’m naturally intrinsically motivated and curious. I taught myself how to code when I was nine so I knew what I was capable of. I went on BodyBuilding.com and started scouring forums on “the science of losing weight,” which took me into a wormhole of knowledge that became my source of motivation.
- I created a workout plan and started committing to the gym daily. I started with split workouts, progressed to heavy lifting, then Crossfit and HIIT. I eventually moved on to outdoor activities such as cycling.
- I started drinking more water.
- I started to research nutrition science and kept a food journal.
- I stayed consistent. I forced myself to go to the gym even when I didn’t feel like it because I had the sweet taste of results to keep me motivated.
- Results: I’ve been living a fit and healthy lifestyle since then and I have never fallen off the bandwagon by focusing on the journey and wiring habits using science-based techniques of neuroplasticity and natural desire for momentum.
- Motivations: I’m motivated by my results and the knowledge that being fit and healthy is a necessity to live the long, happy, and fulfilled life I desire. I know how it feels to be out of control and not have any confidence and I never want to feel that way again. It was a personal decision.
Uncomfortable truths: real-life evidence
I’ve always been a keen observer and obsessed with human behaviour. For more than a decade, I’ve been surrounded by both athletes and non-athletes, or just people with different levels of fitness.
I have friends in their 50s and over who look 20 years younger — yes, they are my “highly fit” friends.
I’ve met people in that age range who do not have active habits and guess what? They look “their age,” if not older.
I also noticed the mindsets of those who are driven and consistent with their exercise and those that aren’t. It’s a hard and uncomfortable truth — but exercise makes a difference. A huge one.
Because I chose to surround myself with people who inspire me, they are all apart of my journey to keep myself accountable.
Your environment will dictate your success.
How exercise changes your brain
Dr. Wendy Suzuki, professor of neuroscience and psychology, is an expert on exercise and brain health. Her research focuses on memory and brain plasticity.
Here is Suzuki’s story:
- Problem: She gained a lot of weight living in New York while studying neuroscience and writing papers. She was never an exerciser.
- Trigger: Went on a rafting trip and she realized she was the weakest link. She was only in her mid-30s.
- Solution: Being the type-A she is, knew something had to change. She started working out and was taking every gym class. She maintained momentum and grew to love exercise. Exercise had changed her state of mind.
- Results: She discovered she would feel extra productive and focused after exercise. Her million-dollar funded NIH grant writing suddenly seemed effortless! She even lost 25 pounds and became a certified fitness instructor. In 2018, her neuroscientist spidey-senses delved deeper and uncovered the effects of exercise on both pre-frontal and hippocampus functions so she narrowed her neuroscience studies to focus on the link between cognitive health.
Her findings can help you find your “why.”
Intrinsic motivation: finding your ‘why’
Suzuki had a revelation:
“I had become a gym rat rather than a workaholic!”
Her work became more effortless because of exercise. That was enough to get her to dig deeper.
Her dad, David Suzuki, got lost one day driving home from 7-11 close to home and she made the link between degenerative brain diseases and exercise.
Your hippocampus: a history of you
Suzuki began her career by studying underlying memory.
Your brain is made up of many different parts. The hippocampus is one critical part of your brain that is responsible for facts, and events and holds onto long-term memory — all your past experiences.
It basically makes you who you are. Without it, you won’t have memories. Knowing that, wouldn’t you want to make sure your brain is healthy?
Exercise: fertilizer for your brain
One of the most significant effects of exercise on the brain is the increased production of a growth factor, BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). Since BDNF is capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier, it can literally change the physiology of your brain.
Studies also show consistent exercise raises your baseline level of BDNF you have. That means you’re always performing at your best.
Suzuki uses the metaphor of “exercise as a wonderful bubble bath for your hippocampus — a bath of lovely chemicals as dopamine and noradrenaline to help you grow a fatter and fluffier hippocampus.”
How exercise can help you focus
Studies show the immediate effects of exercise for at least two hours.
Exercise consistently to take advantage of these brain boosts:
- Improves focus and attention span.
- Improves mood — increases your baseline rates of positivity meaning you are in a better mood most of the time.
- Reduces stress and anxiety.
- Increases neural repair, neuroplasticity and behavioral plasticity.
- Increases energy.
- Increases neurological activity and growth factors such as BDNF.
- Decrease in hostility — kinder people and a better world!
- Improves self-confidence.
The best time to exercise
Neuroscience research says the best time to exercise is before you need to use your brain.
Maybe it’s in the morning? Maybe you work in the evening? Find the best time for you.
How much exercise do you need?
Suzuki says that the minimum amount you can exercise and see the above benefits is around three to four times a week, 30 minutes per workout.
For memory and focus, cardiovascular is needed to “fluff up your hippocampus” to encourage BDNF synthesis, Suzuki says.
In a study, she found 30 to 50-year-olds who are “low-fit” can start with 45 minutes of a spin class two to three times per week can amplify these effects.
From my own research, much more exercise is needed to get into “optimal health” however her recommendations are a good place to start as a beginner. The beauty of neuroplasticity is that the deeper you get into this addicting active lifestyle, the easier it will be for you to “do more.”
It’s all a part of the journey.
It may be hard to get into an exercise routine but it’s possible. You just need to start!
Need help? Read on…
What is your motivation?
To make exercise a part of your daily routine, first ask yourself:
Why do I want to get into shape?
Many people get into exercise when they have a strong trigger — a revelation — an aha moment that kickstarts them into high gear.
Find your trigger
Your brain needs that “one thing” for it to be triggered to make the decision to start exercising. It may be different for everyone.
I suggest reading and listening to as many podcasts [on the topic] and “warm up your brain”. You may have hundreds of insights along the way but one day, one of those insights will cause an ‘aha moment’ for you. That’s your trigger.
Like with anything, your brain needs repetition to form new neural circuits, which is why I suggest you stay persistent with researching a particular topic you want to pursue. We can go deeper into this but there are a million things going on in your brain to make things happen.
For me, it was that bike ride where I struggled up a small incline. For Wendy, it was being the weakest link during a rafting trip.
Mindset shifts to help you start exercising
I’m a huge fan of mantras, affirmations, and self-talk. It may sound ‘woohoo’ but science affirms it. Your brain is listening to everything you are saying to yourself. Every thought counts.
Your beliefs create your results.
I discovered this in my own fitness journey and it was all validated when I started to study neuroscience and mindsets. When you hear or see something that validates your past belief, it will also increase the dopamine surge — which further motivates me to continue this lifestyle.
Do you understand this now? If you maintain momentum, it’s impossible to get off this ride!
Here are some affirmations to start saying to yourself:
“Knowledge is motivation.”
Alia Crum, principal of Stanford Mind and Body Lab, stated that one’s belief in behaviour will impact the outcome of the behaviour. For example, if you learn about the true facts of stress or the benefits of exercise while focusing on the positive effects, you will actually derive positive benefits. Mindsets do matter.
“You are the product of your environment.”
Set your environment up for success.
“There is no such thing as ‘no time’ because you make your own time.”
Time is a man-made concept created by our own subjective mental realities. You can hack your perception of time.
“Less is more.”
You don’t need to go to the gym — even a 10-minute walk outdoors can give your brain a boost for a better mood. Start with that small habit and build. Of course, you will need more intense bouts of exercise to take advantage of growth factors such as BDNF but we all have to start somewhere.
“Intimidation is your own problem.”
You can learn how to reframe intimidation to benefit you. If you are intimated with the gym just remember….
“No one cares about you but yourself.”
Everyone is too busy worrying about themselves.
“Discipline is a choice.”
You decide when to become disciplined. Discipline is a muscle — the more you use it, the bigger it’ll become and the easier your life will get.
“The non-negotiable secret to success is confidence.”
Self-confidence is 100% non-negotiable. You will develop it through consistent exercise.
“Fit and healthy people band together.”
The fitness community is one of the most supportive because we all know that everyone started somewhere. Don’t be intimidated. Besides…
“Every drop of sweat counts.”
This was the result of an ongoing study by Suzuki in collaboration with a spin studio. The more you change and increase your workout up to seven days a week, your baseline mood increases, and the better your hippocampus function was. Regular exercise makes a significant impact on your mind, body, and soul.
“Don’t break the streak”
This is one of my favourite mantras Habits require repetition. Duolingo, the language learning app, is so successful because of a feature that reminds you to “not break the streak” which taps deep into human psychology and helps users improve their language learning experience.
Here are some tips to make exercise a habit.
1) Start with an exercise you actually want to do
Consistency = results = motivation = results.
You need to start somewhere. The deeper you get into it, the more different exercises you’d want to try.
2) Tiny habits
If you don’t have time, for example, if you are travelling:
- Go for a walk.
- Do some push-ups or squats in your hotel room.
- Stretch while you are on a call or Zoom (but turn off your camera).
It doesn’t have to be a lot but in order to maintain your streak to strengthen your neural circuits, just do something! Something is better than nothing.
Don’t break the streak!
3) Try to be consistent with timing
If you perform habits roughly the same time each day, it will make it easier to wire it permanently into your brain because your body is governed by the circadian rhythm and it can anticipate behaviours.
Now, it’s your turn
Nothing worthwhile comes easy and we should never wait for things to happen.
WE MAKE THINGS HAPPEN.
Ask yourself: how bad do I want it?!
If you want it, today is the day to begin your fitness journey. We ALL started from zero.
These are only guidelines to make your journey easier — they are not set in stone! If you can’t do all this, IT IS OK. Just try your hardest and do what you can.
Start small and build up.
Watch your progress.