A workout for your mind

Last updated 09:10 21/01/2014

GOOD THINKING: Jogging can be a great exercise for the brain.

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If more people aren't embracing the message to get moving maybe it's because no one's done a great job of selling it.

When it comes to clocking up the minimum recommended 30 minutes of physical activity five times a week, most of us fall short.

It's not as if we don't know that  movement can bring real rewards - like a body that works better - but often exercise comes across  as a bit like Brussels sprouts - something that's good for us but to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Or it's sold in a way that puts so much emphasis on lean, fast moving bodies that some of us are left discouraged rather than inspired.

"Neuroscientists have argued that exercise can encourage innovation and problem solving. Not because it helps us study more rigorously but because it allows our intellect to relax a little." 

But here's a book with a fresh message about exercise that might nudge some reluctant exercisers into moving more.

In 'How to Think about Exercise', Melbourne philosopher Damon Young argues that exercise isn't just a workout for heart and muscle, but a way to help the mind and the spirit thrive.

"Exercise can make you fitter and that's important but it's often framed as something you do to prevent bad things rather than something to be enjoyed for its own sake," he says.

"Running makes me fit but that's not why I do it - it's because I like the rhythm, the solitude and the reverie," says Young who wrote the book partly to debunk the myth that exercise is anti-intellectual.

"When I tell people I'm going for a run or going to do weight training they're astonished that someone whose job is to think wants to pick up a steel bar. I wanted to do away with the idea that people who exercise can't think and that people who think can't exercise."

Now that more jobs involve working with our minds rather than our bodies, exercise is especially important, not just to get us moving but to enhance mental function, he points out.

It's no coincidence that stepping away from the desk to take a walk can be a short cut to problem solving - by letting the mind roam free, both walking and jogging are great exercises for contemplation, says Young.

"Neuroscientists have argued that exercise can encourage innovation and problem solving. Not because it helps us study more rigorously but because it allows our intellect to relax a little. To digest our meal of facts and arguments," he writes.

"Busy with pounding legs and pumping arms, the intellect's walls come down and previously parted ideas and impressions can freely mingle."

Still it has to be an activity that allows the mind free range. Anything requiring more concentration - rock climbing, for instance - isn't a good fit for a mind that needs to wander, although it can have other benefits like fostering what's called 'flow' - that state of mindfulness where you're so absorbed in what you're doing that everything else seems to melt away.

There are many different activities that can induce the kind of mental focus that leads to flow - the trick says Young is finding something that's challenging enough to make you concentrate but not so tough that you're distracted by anxiety or confusion.

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That's different for all of us - for me, it's any exercise involving focus and a steady rhythm like rowing, paddling or lifting weights.

And don't forget the sense of freedom that comes with breaking into a jog, especially after a day stuck to an office chair. Although Young gets his own after work buzz from hill sprints, he's not suggesting we all do this.

His advice is to just run as fast as you can for as long as you can which, when you think about it, is exactly what kids do - only when they run around we don't call it exercise, we call it play.

- Sydney Morning Herald


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