Neuroscience Reveals Exercise Can Make You a Better Leader
When scary things happen — or could happen — it’s natural to feel hesitant. Uncertain. Even scared.
All of which affects your ability to lead: Research shows that sustained, chronic stress can cause leaders to become uncertain, unmotivated, and turn their focus towards themselves rather than their teams.
Which of course makes sense. No matter how mentally strong you might be, still: Everyone reacts emotionally, especially to things that feel outside their control.
But what you can control is how you respond — and neuroscience shows that aerobic exercise has a “profound ability to lower anxiety levels,” both in the moment and for hours later.
We found that exercise helps to buffer the effects of emotional exposure.
If you exercise, you’ll not only reduce your anxiety, but you’ll be better able to maintain that reduced anxiety when confronted with emotional events.
Aerobic exercise causes the release of neurochemicals like endorphins, serotonin, gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), all of which are substances that basically mimic the effect you receive from consuming cannabis.
Yep: “Runner’s high” is an actual thing.
Other research shows that aerobic exercise also provides not just a distraction from stressful events, but also a change in how your brain functions. Exercise activates the frontal region of your brain, which helps control your amygdala, which helps take you out of “fight or flight” mode.
Yep: There’s a science-based reason why taking a break to do something physical seems to help “ground” you when you’re stressed.
And then there’s this. Stress negatively impacts how efficiently you breathe. (Think the shortness of breath you experience when you’re nervous or scared.) But regular aerobic exercise improves cardiovascular fitness — so the more efficiently you process oxygen, the more likely your body “interrupts” that vicious cycle of stress, lowered oxygen levels, stress…
Yep: The fitter you are, the better your body can cope with stress.
So what can you do? If possible, exercise outside. Research shows simply spending time in green spaces lowers your blood pressure and reduces cortisol. Another study shows that walking in a green space (as opposed to an urban environment) lowered levels of frustration and increased levels of “meditation.”
If you can’t exercise outside, that’s okay. Hit the treadmill, climb on an indoor bike, do a HIIT workout… and you’ll still enjoy all the neurochemical and brain function benefits of exercise.
The key is to exercise at a level that keeps your pulse between 70 and 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. (In general terms, your max heart rate is 220 beats per minute minus your age. But that can vary based on your medical history, etc.)
Exercise at too low an intensity and you won’t enjoy the stress-reducing benefits. The same is true for exercising at too high an intensity.
Although doing a HIIT workout, which at least for me means my heart rate spikes to max during effort intervals, is still effective: Research shows interval training is much better for reducing stress and anxiety than walking. (But keep in mind walking is much better for improving cognitive abilities and memory functioning.)
And then there’s this: Aerobic exercise won’t just help you deal with stress and anxiety. Research shows that 20 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise will boost your mood for up to 12 hours.
Yep: Less stress. Less anxiety. Better mood.
All of which will make you a better leader.
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