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Lessons From Behavioral Science: The Cognitive Benefits of Exercise

May 3, 2012

I posted last week about all the ill effects of lawyers’ sedentary lifestyle and offered some suggestions for mitigating those effects. (Mike Murphy has offered some related suggestions on cultivating good eating habits). But for lawyers with serious work demands, it can seem like there’s never time for the essential components of a healthy lifestyle, such as regular exercise, or consistently getting enough sleep (an area lawyers have been proven to fail miserably). But, as it turns out, it’s not that simple. Apparently, maximizing your productivity at work depends on taking time away from work to exercise.

In a recent piece looking at new neuroscience research, Gretchen Reynolds of the New York Times‘s Phys Ed blog, explained how exercise is key to long term brain health and optimizing cognition. Scientists used to think that the brain was incapable of growing new cells, so we had to just try to protect the ones we were born with and make do. But, it’s come to light in recent years that we can make new neurons. That process of neurogenesis is most prevalent in the hippocampus, which is associated with spatial memory and navigation. Research with lab rodents shows that running on a treadwheel regularly for even a few weeks built up their brains along with their muscles.

Even more striking, the neurons that they built were highly useful. Neurons are useful only when plugged into neural networks, which is not automatic, and not all plugging is created equal. For example, learning a skill plugs in neurons, but they only fire during use of that skill. But exercising plugs in neurons in a broad-based way, so that they fire not just during exercise but during a broad range of activities. Interestingly, walking also builds neurons and generally promotes hippocampal health, but stretching by itself does not–so yoga probably only qualifies if it is at least mildly aerobic. As a bonus, the hippocampus is one of the first parts of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s, so there are potential long terms brain-health benefits to exercise as well.

So, the next time you’re at your desk, grinding away, and your gym shoes catch the corner of your eye, pause for a moment. Getting some exercise could very well justify the time you take out for it, by boosting your productivity at work–not to mention all the other benefits, from your physique to your mood.

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