Time to fire up those brain cells.  Photo credit: Shutterstock

We’ve all been there before and it’s something that’s often referred to as the entrepreneur’s curse or “superhero syndrome”. It starts off innocently, but as you scale your business and begin to grow you have difficulty saying no to things and even worse, delegating or outsourcing tasks to others. You have so many things on your plate but so little time. You get caught up in a vicious circle of burning the candle at both ends and fueling yourself with caffeine and junk food. Naturally, the first thing that always gets tossed by the wayside is exercise.

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, it's in times like these when busy entrepreneurs must take a step back and review the oxygen mask analogy. Put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others, or in other words, take care of yourself first before going out there and changing the world as an entrepreneur. The first step to taking care of yourself begins with your health. It’s no secret that science has clearly proven the health benefits of exercise but it wasn’t until I met Dr. John Ratey, a world-renowned psychiatrist and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, that I fully understood just how powerful the mind body connection actually is and how exercise can literally make you a better entrepreneur.

Most entrepreneurs have some degree of ADHD

Ratey’s early work centered around Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) where he discovered that exercise was a way to balance out patients who had difficulty maintaining focus for extended periods of time. By definition, ADHD describes an individual whose brain activity is marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity that interferes with daily function or development. As it turns out, most entrepreneurs are in fact slightly ADHD in the way that their brains are hyper-focused when coming up with brilliant ideas, exploring uncharted territories or solving difficult problems.

“ADHD people are great creators and get things going, but they get bored and they forget things, and they mismanage things. When it gets to be too big, they hate meetings and they love to keep being creative and that’s what drives so many of our entrepreneur patients,” says Ratey.

After discovering the power of exercise in his ADHD patients, Ratey continued researching and unpacking all the benefits that exercise has on the brain. Even when factoring out the obvious positive effects of lowering blood pressure, stroke risk and improving blood flow to the brain, there seemed to be an extra magical property of exercise above and beyond that.

Exercise is great for the brain

Ratey’s continued studying exercise and the brain and noticed a number of other benefits to exercise including helping with moods, stress, anxiety, attention and aging. His next book called Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain continues this study and in this book he distinctly draws a connection between a person’s physicality and their cognitive function. Ratey scientifically proves in the book that when you exercise, you work more nerve cells in your brain than any other human activity. Basically his point is that exercise is great for the brain.

“Exercise makes us the best that we can be, brings us to the highest state of wellbeing if you will. It sets our brain literally on fire. The two things that people need to know about exercise is when you’re exercising, you are helping your brain regulate your emotions, making yourself more motivated and less stressed. If you exercise chronically, or daily, it optimizes your brain to learn, to remember and to think. And now we know even more, that when we’re exercising we’re more creative, so à la Richard Branson who has walking meetings, he does it for a reason.”

That’s not all, exercise slows cognitive decline too

If all of the above isn’t enough to convince entrepreneurs to start exercising right away, then maybe this will. Ratey's final conclusion is that exercise is essentially a prevention to cognitive decline and ultimately Alzheimer’s disease. As he kept learning about the brain as a muscle, he realized that the more we exercise the smarter we become.

“The best way to use the brain is to exercise. All kinds, whether it’s yoga, whether it’s Tai Chi, whether it’s martial arts, whether it’s playing, whether it’s running, or swimming, or climbing. When you’re moving, your brains are turned on, you’re using more … we’re using not just muscle cells but you’re using more nerve cells than in any other human activity.”

Exercise makes your brain tougher just like a muscle and when we fire nerve cells in the brain our brain cells stay young and grow. The only way we learn is when our brain cells grow and the most effective way to make them grow is through exercise.

So before you think about doubling down on your evening espresso to pull yet another all nighter, try going for a run or hitting the gym instead. You’ll be surprised at how much just a little bit of exercise can improve your productivity.

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