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Healthy body, healthy mind

Keeping your energy levels and brain in tip-top condition will help fuel creative solutions to problems and power you through the working day. Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton show you how

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How long have you spent in front of a computer lately? Studies around the world indicate, unsurprisingly, that due to lockdown, screen time is up significantly. For some it’s been about binge-watching a TV series or playing a new game. For others, those extra hours have been a necessary response to the COVID-19 crisis – leading many to work longer hours as the boundaries between work and home life blur.

Screen time is a double-edged sword. When working online, dopamine, the so-called reward chemical, is produced in greater quantities in our brains because we are able to achieve more and reach our goals faster. We constantly experience novelty and this keeps us engaged, possibly even addicted, over extended periods. While dopamine is a large part of what draws us to our screens, spending too much sedentary time staring at a screen can have a negative impact if we’re not careful. It can affect our energy, the quality of our thinking, our confidence levels and our creativity at precisely the time when most companies are relying on us to be more productive and creative than ever.

The ability to detect and actively manage the balance of certain chemicals in our bloodstream and nervous system so that we can achieve more, stress less and live and work more happily enables us to create a work environment that boosts our energy levels – and also our creativity level.

1. Focus on fitness

There is an indisputable connection between our physical and mental health. Physical exercise is important because it helps our brain grow. Our minds have a powerful effect on our physical health and vice versa. If we don’t listen to our bodies and commit to a wellbeing protocol, we can easily drain our resilience and erode our inner strength, capacity for creativity and ability to sustain effort for extended periods of time. There are two types of exercise to bear in mind.

Aerobic exercise

Studies suggest we should be standing, moving or walking for two to four hours a day. Aerobic exercise, getting our heart rate up and down regularly three times a day, makes our physical recovery and renewal system robust and enables us to recover quickly from mental and emotional pressure. Strength and resistance training (squats, press-ups, etc) boosts communication between brain cells. Extensive research supports the view that exercise is a cure for depression and responsible for improved cognitive function and health. Studies from Japan in 2014, for example, show that 30 minutes of mild daily exercise significantly improves executive function, decision-making and focus. Finding ways to engage in aerobic exercise is especially important while in isolation.

Endurance/strength training

Depending on demand, energy is generated in every cell by mini rechargeable batteries known as mitochondria that create and release energy using oxygen and food. Endurance and strength training increase the numbers of mitochondria, enabling muscles to produce more energy.

2. Just breathe

A 2012 study of South African bankers found that after 21 days of paced breathing, they achieved a 62% improvement on average in cognitive capacity on complex decision-making tasks. Start by grounding yourself – drop your shoulders and relax your abdominal muscles, which include the diaphragm. Breathe in, observing how your abdomen and lower ribs expand. Breathe out, noting how the abdomen and lower ribs contract. This is diaphragmatic breathing. Continue breathing in through your nose and out your mouth to a steady count. There is no need for these counts to match (three in and four out, for example). Commit to a minimum of 10 minutes of paced breathing daily. For an energy hit, choose a faster pace, briskly filling and emptying the lungs to a count of two in and two out, for example.

Paced breathing boosts levels of the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), which gives us lasting energy reserves that power us steadily forward. While we can naturally make DHEA in our bodies using this breathing technique, it is interesting to note that the World Anti-Doping Agency classes synthetic DHEA as a banned substance.

3. Get your rest

Energy is the main currency of life. The executive function of our brains in the pre-frontal cortex is very energy hungry. Brain activity consumes up to 20% of the body’s energy – more than any other single organ. In addition to exercise and breathing techniques, sleep is a critical factor for having enough energy to remain productive. Plenty of sleep (seven hours minimum) is critical for maintaining energy levels, focus and productivity. The cells in your brain need time for housekeeping, which they get when we sleep. Pay attention to sleep quantity and quality; it helps the brain recover and is essential for full waking brain power.

4. Stay hydrated

Water is vital for every function in the body. If we want to feel strong and have energy available, it is important to stay hydrated. The NHS advises drinking six to eight glasses of fluid a day. Try using one of the many ‘drink water’ apps to make sure you’re drinking regularly.

5. Jump

Movement has a profound effect on us, changing the way we think and feel and releasing energy if we feel tired. If your energy starts to wane, jump up and down for 30 seconds. It will give you an instant energy boost.

6. Snack on fruit and nuts

Eat fresh fruit, but always along with a handful of nuts or seeds to prevent a blood sugar low. The sugar (fructose) in fruit gives us immediate energy while the protein and fat in nuts and seeds gives us sustained energy, stabilising our blood sugar levels

Give your creativity a lift

Watch your energy and creativity improve by incorporating these four physical intelligence tips into your daily routine.

Step away from your screen

Just before a creative connection is made, the visual cortex of the brain relaxes and we enter a momentarily calm, alpha wave brain state. To increase your chances of having that type of an insight, it helps to close your eyes and relax and clear your mind. In that sense, screen time is counterproductive to creative thinking. Varying immersion in a particular task with relaxed focus elsewhere invites inspiration.

Don’t try too hard, though, because making an effort to be creative impedes ideas. We need to relax, let go, and let them come naturally. This explains why we often wake up with solutions to problems we have been trying to solve.

Shift your perspective

Trust, novelty, vitality and positive mood all increase our chances of having creative ideas. Dopamine enables connections across multiple areas of the brain – including vision and imagination – making it the most important chemical for creativity. It is also critical for our desire to reach our goals.

Dopamine is released when things are novel, fun and when you look at them from different perspectives. It is also released when you see stimulating or inspiring scenery or art. If you want to spark your creativity, take a break and go for a walk in a natural environment. If leaving the house isn’t an option, simply shifting your perspective and looking at something you find beautiful in nature or art will also help boost creativity.

Take a walk

Movement is vital for creative thinking. Research from Stanford University shows that while seated, looking at a fixed object, only 50% of people can come up with a high-quality new idea, whereas while walking outside or even inside on a treadmill, people are 45% more likely to have a high-quality new idea. Look for opportunities to get up and move throughout each day. Use a stand/sit desk, if possible, to be more mobile and flexible and set reminders for movement each hour.

Soak up the sun

Daylight promotes the release of serotonin (the so-called happiness chemical) in the brain, which makes us feel lighter, more flexible and more creative. If possible, set up your office in a sunny spot. Whenever the sun is shining, make sure you spend some time outside or at least near a sunny window. If outside, take off your shades for a few moments, get light into your eyes and soak up those feel-good rays.

Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton, Directors of Companies in Motion and authors of award-winning personal development book Physical Intelligence (Simon & Schuster), available in ebook and hardback, £14.99

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