Micro-exercising throughout the day
After starting The Extended Mind by Annie Murphy Paul this last week I’ve started to change how I approach breaks and exercise and I’ve found it pretty amazing.
The main thesis of The Extended Mind is that our brains are just a part of our bodies (which is obvious but we routinely ignore). As such, how you use your body (e.g., motion, gestures) and where your body is (e.g., place, time, context) has a big impact on how you think. The notion that the best way to think is to “sit down and just think harder” is clearly not true - the state our body is in influences our thoughts dramatically.
Within this thesis the book talks about how exercise can completely change how you think and feel. I’m going to quote a few paragraphs at length here since she lays it out pretty clearly (you can skim via the bolded sentences):
Moderate-intensity exercise, practiced for a moderate length of time, improves our ability to think both during and immediately after the activity. The positive changes documented by scientists include an increase in the capacity to focus attention and resist distraction; greater verbal fluency and cognitive flexibility; enhanced problem-solving and decision-making abilities; and increased working memory, as well as more durable long-term memory for what is learned. The proposed mechanisms by which these changes occur include heightened arousal […], increased blood flow to the brain, and the release of a number of neurochemicals, which increase the efficiency of information transmission in the brain and which promote the growth of neurons, or brain cells. The beneficial mental effects of moderately intense activity have been shown to last for as long as two hours after exercise ends.
Now here is a key part:
The encouraging implication of this research is that we have it within our power to induce in ourselves a state that is ideal for learning, creating, and engaging in other kinds of complex cognition: by exercising briskly just before we do so.
Let me stop here for a second and repeat that: If we want to think better, doing moderate-intensity exercise right before is a proven way to do so. Even a few minutes can transform our state of mind.
Unfortunately, that’s not how most of us (or our environments) operate:
As things stand, however, we don't often take intentional advantage of this opportunity. Our culture conditions us to see mind and body as separate - and so we separate, in turn, our periods of thinking from our bouts of exercise. Consider how many of us make our visits to the gym only after work, for example, or on weekends. Instead, we should be figuring out how to incorporate bursts of physical activity into the work day and the school day- which means rethinking how we approach our breaks. Lunch breaks, coffee breaks, downtime between tasks or meetings: all become occasions to use exercise to maneuver our brains into an optimally functioning state. [She goes on to talk about how this is why recess is so amazing for kids…]
After reading this, I’ve really started to take it to heart. I typically just do moderate exercise once a day (my “exercise time”). Other times during the day I just don’t exercise: I sit/stand and work, I do slow walks, etc. So instead, taking Paul’s advice, I’ve stared to sprinkle in multiple 5-15 minute workouts throughout the day in addition to a longer workout.
Some examples I’ve started experimenting with:
Before breakfast I put on a 5 minute Peloton cardio class (an entire set of classes which I’d ignored before). I do the workout with my 6 year old and it’s so much fun.
Instead of just walking during my down times, I will walk/run (3 mins on and 1 off with bits of sprints) — it keeps the intensity below a sweat but then I feel really energized afterwards. It feels like a mini workout and my mind is way more focused .
If I have a few minutes before a meeting, instead of checking twitter or email I’ll now do jumping jacks, push ups, or squats (or some mix of variations). My heart rate goes up to 80-100 and it’s better than a shot of coffee.
An added benefit of all of this is I’m now drinking a lot more water instead of coffee. Even after five minutes of exercise my body craves water. I also have had to increase my snacks since my body is getting much hungrier…
The more I do this the more I realize this concept isn’t new at all - this is what HIIT fans has advocated for a long time, it’s Tim Ferriss’ 4-hour body thesis, etc. It turns out the internet is littered with quick workouts – just google “quick HIIT workouts” and you’ll find enough for a lifetime.
I’m also realizing that a lot of people who’s energy levels I admire, have been doing this under my nose the whole time: my father is still doing long-distance running at close to 80 and I’ll sometimes see him sneak in pushups. Or take Klaus Obermeyer - he’s 102 and still skiing and doing aikido. If you read his stories, it’s all about exercising continuously.
Looking back, I think I’d always ignored shorter, less-intense workouts because they didn’t seem like “good exercise”. The idea of doing multiple workouts a day seemed impossible - the realm of a super athlete. But I realize that this is because I was defining “workout” too narrowly - it’s as if I defined “eating” as “going to a restaurant” instead of anytime I had food. Working out for a few minutes at a time felt insufficient for getting in shape but what I completely missed were all the benefits short bursts would give me in terms of improved mood, energy and cognition.
I’m still playing with different workout formats and don’t have a long track record of doing this but for now I’m seeing way higher energy levels throughout the day. It’s only been a week, but it feels liberating to embrace the ambient feeling of movement throughout the day.
If you do this, let me know if you have any tips or suggestions!
Thank you for reading! If you’re new here, feel free to check out some other posts on bardos & impermanence, deep work, and memory. You can also subscribe here.
PS1: if this is interesting to you, I’ve really enjoyed the suggestions from this blog for the types of exercise and theory behind what could be useful as the exercise itself (yes, it’s called Mr. Money Mustache).
PS2: Below is an example of what my activity rate looks like at the end of the day; instead of just one large bar, it’s starting to look like rolling hills.