As human resources (HR) and company leaders know, several essentials beyond pay and benefits ought to be addressed to help influence a company’s positive results.
Employee engagement, purpose and employee well-being are typically part of this list. However, past coverage of employee well-bring tended to focus on physical health and the benefits that can be gained with more exercise. This is true but it is only part of the story. There is much more to employee well-being than physical health.
Employee Well-Being is More Than Physical Health
While past coverage of employee well-being tended to focus on how exercise helped with physical health, it did also mention the benefits to mental health as well. However, coverage on exercises benefits to mental health was usually brief. There may be a good reason for this. After all, historically there has been a tremendous amount of research on the many benefits exercise has on our bodies, but far less that describes the benefit to our brains.
Dr. Wendy A. Suzuki, a Professor of Neural Science and Psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University, is part of a trend of medical professionals aiming to change this. Suzuki is studying how aerobic exercise can improve brain function.
More research quantifying the mental benefits of exercise is changing the conversation. This may be the catalyst for employers mandating or actively encouraging daily activity, a trend that appears to be somewhat new domestically, but not globally. Some employers use solutions such as Virgin Pulse that helps employees develop better lifestyle habits, including exercise, diet, and games to improve well-being.
Doesn’t Everyone Know Exercise Is Good For Them?
Yes. It is reasonable to assume that everyone knows exercise is good for them. It’s also feasible to believe that everyone understands the benefits of a healthy diet. Knowing something and actively applying it are very different concepts. If employees knew the actual quantifiable short and long term benefits exercise has on mental health, would it encourage an increase in daily activity?
Frame the Discussion
Motivating employees to exercise might be as simple as framing the conversation, so exercise is seen from a different perspective.
Have employees imagine getting an annual exam with a doctor and being told that Alzheimer’s Is Accelerating Across the U.S., but there’s good news to share. There is new medicine that may help. The medication offers long-term improvements in focus, attention, memory, and mood. It also reduces the chances of getting Alzheimer’s and dementia by at least 30% by making portions of their brains bigger. There are many other expected benefits and no known downsides.
Given this imaginary doctor’s appointment, the employee can then be asked if they would like to sample the medicine for a few weeks? Most employees would likely say, “yes.” If it existed, the medication might be the best selling of all time. Employees presented with the expected twist learn that the imaginary medication is called exercise. Some might roll their eyes, but even they will look at exercise differently.
How Does Exercise Help Our Brains?
In an engaging video, Suzuki explains how exercise improves our mood because it “…increases levels of neurotransmitters that we know are very strongly associated with good mood.” These neurotransmitters include dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline, and endorphins, which all increase with aerobic exercise. Further, exercise has also been shown to increase attention and long term memory.
Where is the Proof that Exercise Helps our Brains?
To evaluate how exercise improves our brains, Suzuki earned an exercise certification to train her undergraduate students. She tested her students at the beginning and end of the semester to compare the results making sure to use a colleague’s class, that did not exercise, as a control group.
Suzuki exercised with her students once a week for an hour before her class. She used an aerobic exercise program called IntenSati that combines various forms of aerobic exercise with spoken positive affirmations.
Did It Work?
Sort of. Suzuki reports that there was a wide range of fitness levels in her first class ranging from beginner to advanced. Her tests showed that memory in the class that exercised did not improve as compared to the control group. However, reaction time did improve in the class that exercised. Suzuki realized that the class was only once a week and wondered what would happen if she studied a class that exercised several times a week.
The research is still ongoing, but the results are favorable. There was a comparison of a pilot class that exercised for one semester and took off one semester. Thousands of students in the pilot class showed better results in attention and working as well as long-term memory during the semester they exercised.
Suzuki states that there are many questions left to answer, including how much exercise is required by each and are there different regiments necessary for people of different ages, gender or genetic backgrounds? Also, how does aerobic exercise improve our brains?
What Happens to Our Brains When We Exercise?
Studies in animal models show that exercise secretes hormones called growth factors into the brain, which in turn helps new brain cells grow. More exciting is the fact that the new brain cells grow in the hippocampus which, in adult brains, is the only known area where brain cells grow. The hippocampus is also known to be a critical area for long term memory.
Additionally, a ketone body is released from the liver when we exercise, which goes into the brain and stimulates the growth factor that leads to new brain cells. The growth factor is called BDNF or brain-derived neurotrophic factor.
What Type of Exercise is Best for Companies?
Whether you decide as a leader of your company to promote group exercise classes or informal walks during lunch, the important thing is to explain the latest research on how exercise helps all of us.
Medical professionals like Suzuki are not yet able to promote specific exercise regiments. It is expected that the latest research will help identify precise activities for individuals to maximize the benefits of exercise. However, until this research is completed, it is likely best to follow the latest recommendations.
These recommendations are based on broad research that shows regular exercise, which elevates heart rates will provide benefits for everyone. These benefits include a reduction of at least a 30% chance of getting Alzheimer’s or dementia as well as noticeable improvements in focus, attention, memory, and mood.
Suzuki also states, “New exercises that stimulate us and force us to use our coordination in a new way are also very powerful to enhance brain function and may also maximally enhance our cognition as well.” Between this and the fact that there is “growing evidence that resistance training is also good,” means that any exercise or body movement may soon be proven to have long-term health for the brain.
Until more research is completed it pays to create a diversified work out routine that not only raises heart rate with aerobic exercise but anaerobic as well. As Suzuki states in an article linked from her website, “[exercise is] …like a supercharged 401K for your brain.” The more exercise and activity that we complete now the healthier our brains, and bodies, will be in the future.
How Employment Verification HelpS
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HR teams that outsource employment verification to i2Verify rest easy knowing that the employment verification process is being taken care of and are able to place focus on other critical tasks including keeping the team healthy through exercise. i2Verify works directly with all lenders, background check vendors, and government agencies to make sure that we fulfill all employment verification requests securely and quickly.
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