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Why your brain needs exercise

Liz Guthridge Posted by Liz Guthridge, Managing Director, Connect Consulting Group.

Liz Guthridge is a coach, consultant and facilitator who helps leaders turn their blue-sky ideas into greener-pasture actions. She uses applied neuroscience, behavior design and mindful communications. 

Why your brain needs exercise

Want to increase your focus, reduce stress and improve your well-being?

Take time to exercise your mind in addition to your body.

By training yourself─and your mind─to be more mindful, you’re able to improve your ability to pay attention and your cognitive control. (The latter helps you manage your emotions and increase your emotional intelligence.)

When you’re mindful, you’re in the moment. You’re conscious of your thinking. You’re more observant. And you’re non-judgmental.

In other words, you’re aware, alert and accepting. That’s the exact opposite of mind wandering, which takes you out of the moment.

A wandering mind is an unhappy mind, according to scientists. Individuals who spend about half their time thinking about something other than what they’re doing are more prone to be unhappy, explained Dr. Christine Cox in a NeuroLeadership Institute webinar on organizational mindset earlier this year.

It’s not unusual for many individuals to spend a high proportion of their days either letting their minds wander or being in auto pilot.

That’s why training to be mindful can be so beneficial.

For a number of years, meditation has been considered the gold standard of mindfulness. A new study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry shows that individuals who were trained in formal mindfulness meditation were able to change their brain and likely change their health, unlike a control group who practiced relaxation and distraction instead.

Meditation seems to help neural pathways communicate better, especially between the areas that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm. Over time—just four months after mindfulness meditation in the study—blood tests showed lower levels of a marker of unhealthy inflammation.

Dr. J. David Creswell, the study’s leader and an associate professor of psychology and the director of the Health and Human Performance Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University, believes that changes in the brain contribute to the reduced inflammation, although he and his colleagues aren’t yet sure how.

It’s also not clear how much mindfulness meditation─or any mindfulness for that matter─is needed to improve health.

Even though scientists don’t know the ideal dose, that shouldn’t be an excuse to avoid practicing mindfulness, especially since you can do it anywhere and at any time.

Don’t use your lack of patience to learn and practice formal meditation as an excuse either for being mindful.  

Just adopt the mindfulness method advocated by Harvard Psychology Professor Dr. Ellen Langer, who’s been studying mindfulness since the early 1970s and is often described as the “mother of mindfulness.

Dr. Langer defines mindfulness as “the very simple process of noticing new things, which puts us in the present and makes us more sensitive to context and perspective. It is the essence of engagement,” as explained in the Harvard Business Review blog post, “Mindfulness Isn’t Much Harder than Mindlessness” .

Observing in the moment seems a lot easier and more fun way of exercising your mind than exercising your body by playing on monkey bars.  

What do you think?