Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Your Brain Just Called—It’s Not OK to Skip Your Workout Today

Monday’s stirring Boston Marathon results--Americans taking 6 of the top 10 men’s spots and 2 of the top 10 women’s spots--sent a buzz through the running community. It wasn’t just a great showing by the elite runners under warmer than ideal conditions, it was a victory for every rank and file runner who toed the line and every spectator who showed up to cheer them on.

As we posted four years ago this week, just days after the tragic bombings at the 2013 Marathon,
Life Is  a Marathon Not a Sprint.
Runners generally don’t have super-human size, strength, blazing speed or extraordinary leaping ability,” we wrote. “They don’t slam dunk, hit home runs, do touchdown dances, hit holes-in-one or throw down 720s from the top of the half-pipe. They’ve simply found a way to get the most of the endurance gene we all have inside of us and put one foot in front of the other on days when others hit the snooze button, pull the covers over their heads, skip the gym and go out for brunch.”

Don’t wimp out—ever!

So, if you’re feeling guilty about skipping your jog, yoga session or gym workout today, we’re NOT going console you. That’s right. Even if you’re not training for a marathon, triathlon or Tough Mudder competition, wimping out is not only bad for your body; it’s bad for your brain as well. A
new study from the University of Maryland department of kinesiology finds that the benefits of exercise for brain health can diminish in as little as one or two weeks of inactivity.

The author at '97 Boston Marathon


After 18 marathons (including two Bostons), 50 triathlons and seven 24-hour relays, my competitive racing days are over. Hip, labrum and shoulder surgeries in recent years have put a permanent exclamation point on that fact. But, I still manage to get a short run, swim or bike ride in about 355 days a year and feel absolutely crummy—both mentally and physically—on those 10 days a year when I don’t. As my college track coach used to say, “anyone can run fast when they’re feeling good, we’re going to teach you to run fast when you feel like crap.”

*** QUICK TIP for beating the exercise blahs: On those days when you’re tired, stressed and just aren’t feeling it, try the 10-minute test. Assuming you’re not seriously ill or recovering from surgery, make a deal with yourself to get to the track, gym or exercise class at a pre-determined time. Just try to make it through the first 10 minutes. If you’re still feeling crummy after the first 10 minutes, call it a day. But more often than not, once you get moving, you’ll finish the full workout and come back more energized than when you arrived.

Numerous studies have shown that regular exercise—particularly endurance exercise—helps to create new neurons, blood vessels and synapses and it strengthens areas of the brain that are related to memory and higher-level thinking. Those who exercise regularly not only have more endorphins—the body’s happy chemicals—but better memories and cognitive skills than their sedentary counterparts.


Without getting into the wonky science, exercise physiologists believe that working out increases blood flow to the brain. Blood carries fuel and oxygen to brain cells, along with other substances that help to jump-start desirable biochemical processes there. In general, the more blood you have flowing into the brain, the better.


The University of Maryland study, which was published in August in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, asked a group of highly fit older men and women to stop exercising for nearly two weeks. Participants were competitive master’s runners between the ages of 50 and 80 who agreed to join the study. At the start of the experiment, the runners visited the researchers’ lab for tests of their cognitive skills. They also had a special brain M.R.I. that tracks how much blood is flowing to various parts of the brain.


Then the athletes sat around for 10 days. They did not run or otherwise exercise and were asked to engage in as little physical activity as possible. Again, these were highly fit and disciplined people, so being asked to be couch potatoes for a while was a punishment for them, not a reward. 


After 10 days of being sedentary, the itchy runners returned to the lab to repeat the earlier tests, including the M.R.I. scan of their brains. The results showed striking changes in blood flow now. Much less blood streamed to most of the areas in the runners’ brains, and the flow declined significantly to both the left and right lobes of the hippocampus. It’s not clear if the study participants performed noticeably worse on the tests of cognitive function than they had at the start. But, the results suggest that the improvements in brain blood flow because of exercise will diminish if you stop training.


Conclusion
The study’s message seems clear. For continued brain health, you have to keep moving. The international running community and Bostonians of all colors, ages and sizes took that to heart on Monday. For the 25,000 participants and million-plus spectators, it was a resounding victory over terrorism, self-doubt and the endless temptations we face to take the easy way out.

Regardless of how your day is going, just keep putting one foot in front of the other each and every day. Before you know it, you’ll be closer to your goals than you think.
Have a good week. Best, HB

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TAGS: Benefits of exercise, exercise physiology, brain health, University of Maryland kinesiology


Sunday, April 09, 2017

More Multi-Tasking Myths

As expected, Part 1 of this post rankled a few of you, but many others agreed.

According to author and New York Times business columnist, Phyllis Korkki, you’re far better off “mono-tasking” than trying to fool yourself into thinking your brain is a true multi-processing machine. It’s not just a matter of being more productivity when you take on one task at a time, but being more creative.

For her recent article series about making the most of your workday, Korkki interviewed a number of neuroscientists and productivity experts. One key takeaway
: “Truly innovative thinking arises when we allow our brains to follow a logical path of associated thoughts and ideas, and this is more likely when we can focus on a single mental pathway for an extended period.” Earl K. Miller, a neuroscience professor at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, put it more bluntly: “Multitasking is not humanly possible!”

Miller, one of several experts interviewed by Korkki, said you tend to make more mistakes when you multi-task. Sounds reasonable, but why? According to Miller, that’s because when you “toggle” back and forth from task to task, “the neural networks of your brain must backtrack to figure out where they left off and then reconfigure. That extra activity causes you to slow down, and errors become more likely,” explained Miller.

Our take--
It would help if the generations took the time to understand each other’s preferred speed of information gathering and critical thinking. For instance, seasoned professionals should understand that Millennials may be paying closer attention than you think even when the have their cell phones out. Did it ever occur to you that the 20-something in the conference room is taking notes on his cellphone, not checking Facebook and Twitter every five minutes? On the flip side, young folks should understand they don’t have a monopoly on innovation. Turns out middle-age folks (46-60) have obtained the lion’s share of the patents, according to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

To the best of your ability, Korkki recommended setting up a work environment that encourages you to perform just one single task at a time. While she and other experts don’t think it’s possible for most people to block off hours at a time for a single task, Korkki said that even committing yourself to monotask for five minutes can yield productivity benefits.
From personal experience, I remember my old boss calling it “time boxing” and my fourth grade teacher repeatedly shouted at us to give her our “undivided attention.” Maybe she was on to something.

A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that interruptions as brief as two to three seconds were enough to double the number of errors participants made in an assigned task.

Still skeptical? Korkki recommended making incremental changes like these:

1. Remove temptation:
 Actively resist the urge to check unrelated social media while you are working on a task. Some workers may need to go so far as to install anti-distraction programs like SelfControl, Freedom, StayFocusd and Anti-Social, which block access to the most addictive parts of the internet for specified periods.
2. Work on just one screen: Put away your cellphone and turn off your second monitor.

3. Move: If you find yourself losing focus – reading the same sentence over and over or if your mind continually wanders off topic – get up and briefly walk around, Dr. Miller said. A brief walk around your office can lift your mood, reduce hunger and help you refocus.

Here at HB Publishing, you can tell who the creatives are…. We’re the ones always getting up every hour to walk around the office, shoot the breeze in the coffee room or stepping outside for a few minutes of fresh air—on the other size of the plaza from the smokers.
4. Work in intervals: Set a timer for five or 10 minutes and commit to focusing on your assignment for that amount of time. Then allow yourself a minute of distraction, as long as you get back on your task for another five or 10 minutes.

A number of us here at HB are endurance athletes. Interval training—hard bursts of all out focus followed by pre-set rest periods and then hard burst of all out focus again—is part of our DNA. We also use the 5-4-1 principal. Here’s how it works
: After a good mental warmup, you go hard at your desk for 5 hours, followed by a long break of at least 60 minutes (the average “lunch break” here at HB is closer to 90). After that 60-90 minute break, you hit it hard again for 4 hours, then take another long break, resuming with 1 hour of hard focus and recap time to gather up the loose ends from your day and to prepare for the next day. Many find it useful to break up the 5-4-1 work intervals into morning, afternoon, and post-dinner time.

Works for us.


*** New Insta Poll: How many times per month are you communicating with clients? Early results show that about half of you aren’t communicating with your clients often enough. See how you stack up to your peers (Our latest Insta Poll is on the right side of our home page). Maybe it’s time you put the devices down and picked up the old fashioned phone a little more.


 
Conclusion

We know many of you can’t get away with a 90-minute lunch break, but when you’re paid to use your brain more than your brawn, it makes sense to put in the work when your brain is firing on all cylinders. As Korkki notes, “not everyone gets there the same way. It’s up to you to figure out when you are most efficient and when you’re not.”

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TAGS  Journal of Experimental Psychology, Dr. Earl Miller, Phyllis Korkki, multi-tasking is a myth