Keep brains healthy with exercise

You invest a lot in your employees; your people are your biggest asset, isn’t that right?

So what’s the one little part of them that you’d least like to see deteriorating? In a knowledge economy, the answer has got to be the brain.

But keep your biggest asset tied to an office chair all day long, and that’s what will be happening to them: deterioration. A sedentary lifestyle shrinks the brain and sets it up for poorer memory and dementia:

“Promotion of midlife CV [cardiovascular] fitness may be an important step towards ensuring healthy brain aging,” say researchers who published in Neurology in early 2016, where they reported that those with lower cardiovascular fitness at the outset had smaller brains twenty years on.

And in a 2013 article in Nature, scientists wrote “Researchers have shown that people who regularly engage in aerobic exercise have more gray matter in the hippocampal region of the brain, reducing the likelihood of impaired memory and dementia.”

In the here and now, exercise stimulates the release of growth factors, substances in the brain which trigger the growth of new blood vessels and are crucial to the health of brain cells. It’s also great for boosting mood, reducing stress and helping people sleep – stressed out and tired individuals just don’t have the spark to do good brain work. And finally, a study of US schoolchildren showed that exercise improves executive control – no, not control of your executives! The children were better able to ignore distractions, work with information and multitask – all good effects you want to encourage in the workplace.

That’s all you need to know to want to get your people moving – but how?

Educate, educate, educate

Unless they know what’s in it for them, people tend to resist new ideas. So let them know! “If you need help explaining the benefits of exercise, ask a physiotherapist,” says Dr Ina Diener, president of the South African Society of Physiotherapy (SASP). “Physiotherapists are experts in this field and counsel patients every day on the benefits of moving their bodies.”

Ensure that management at all levels is on board and enthusiastic – it is they who will create an ambience that welcomes movement.

Make it policy

Once your staff understand the benefits, it will be easier to introduce them to policies which promote movement in the workplace. Include things like:

• Meetings on the move: instead of sitting in a stuffy office, get people walking and talking down the corridors or outside.
• The perambulating phone call: provide wireless landline phones and encourage people to walk while handling phone calls – even a stroll will be better than sitting down for it!
• Flexible workstations: offer desks which can switch from sitting to standing to get people off their butts as much as possible.
• Change your dress code (if feasible) to encourage movement (stilettos are hardly conducive to brisk walks).
• Break it up: if meetings are expected to run long, make it policy to break every half hour for some active movement.
• Support sport: make activities which are movement- and family-friendly part of your corporate social responsibility.
• Happy hoofers: check your workplace over and ask yourself, would I walk here? Are the stairwells safe and welcoming places, well-lit, with attractive colours and art on the walls, for example? Are the common areas and corridors wide enough to accommodate walking meetings?

“Every day, people should engage in both aerobic and resistance exercise to maintain their cognitive function,” says Dr Diener. “It doesn’t have to be a sweaty hour-long workout – incorporating more movement into your everyday activities will help a great deal. Even simply walking increases the blood flow to the brain.”

If you are interested in having a physiotherapist come and talk to your staff about the benefits of exercise, contact the SASP on 011 615 3170.