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Want to think better? Use your legs!

Jun 13, 2008 Business Daily, Management

1. You learn 20% faster immediately after exercise than after sitting still.
2. If our ancestors sat still in the savanna for eight hours straight…they became somebody’s lunch. Our brains developed while we walked about 12 miles a day, seven days a week, for several million years.
3. The brain’s executive functions – higher-order capacities valued by businesses everywhere – respond to exercise.

Harvard Business Review (February 2008)

HBR recently carried an intriguing visual spread. It showed the ‘board meeting of the future’, where every member was around the table – but wearing jogging gear and working out on a treadmill!

The facts above are excerpted from the spread, and demonstrate something all we desk-potatoes have forgotten: the human brain is designed to work better when the rest of the body is active, too. The article pointed out that exercise improves the blood’s access to specific brain regions and stimulates learning cells to make something called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor, if you really want to know) – which acts as a natural cerebral fertilizer. Exercise also enables oxygen to get to over-worked tissues and do a clean-up job by absorbing toxins.

Studies have shown that an active lifestyle not reduces the risks of critical diseases, but also improves cognitive performance. This should be a real wake-up call to Kenyan corporate types, many of whom work eight or more straight hours at the same desk every day, only getting up to respond to nature. In addition, you can see many people take the lift even to get to the next floor! It should be no surprise that we are creating a generation of tubby dimwits – but those people are running our executive teams and corporate boards.

Part of the problem is in our heads. We imagine that once we become ‘executives’ we should cease all plebeian pursuits. Walking is best left to a coarser class of people, is it not? We prefer to sit in our soft chairs in air-conditioned rooms, rather than do anything as uncouth as walking around. We take cars or taxis everywhere (even down the street). ‘Work’ involves computers and telephones, not conversations with people in physical proximity. And people are thought to be ‘productive’ by their bosses when they are sitting still at their desks, typing away on their keyboards. The reality is that our brains are more productive when they are engaged in more natural activities: talking to fellow employees and customers; or just moving around.

True, not many of us are going to be able to instal treadmills or cycling machines at our desks anytime soon. But exerting ourselves physically need not be expensive, nor inconvenient. Having been guilty of desk-potato status myself, I have learned to address this by simply doing the things I had forgotten to do.

I now walk up the many flights to my particular floor in my building, rather than take the lift. I park farther away from the entrance in car parks, and use the opportunity to get some leg work in. I go for walks in the course of the working day. If HBR is to be believed, I will write a better column as a result…

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