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Fitness From the Neck Up

by Jeremy McCarthy

Research points to the importance of exercise for brain health.


A few years ago, I was studying applied positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, which was one of the most enriching (and intensely challenging) times of my life. I was still working my full-time job in New York; schlepping back and forth to the University on weekends for classes, meetings and library time; reading countless research articles and books; and completing writing and homework assignments every week.

Most people would probably assume that with such a busy schedule I would find it impossible to make time to exercise. But the reverse was actually true.  I began working out more than ever before.

How did I manage to stay so disciplined? One big reason had to do with the nature of what I was studying. I was seeing a lot of research on the importance of exercise, not only for physical health, but for cognitive functioning.

The more I studied, the more I realized that exercise was important for brain health too. If I wanted to have the creativity, focus and mental stamina required to process everything I was trying to accomplish while balancing school and work, exercise was the only way. So I hit the gym, almost every day. Today, I attribute a lot of my professional and academic success during this period to the fact that I was in good shape, both physically and mentally.

The awareness of this idea of “brain fitness” is growing fast. In a recent report on wellness from researchers at Truth Central, they found that 49 percent of people globally do exercises to improve their brain health. In emerging markets, such as Brazil and China, that number is much higher.

In fact, a new vision of wellness seems to be emerging. It is no longer exclusively about a long, lean physique or chiseled abs. Wellness means having a clear mind, the ability to make decisions effectively, and even experiencing happiness. Dave McCaughan from Truth Central describes wellness as “a healthy body mass index, while happy and smiling.” We are starting to realize that fitness does not only cover what happens from the neck down. It is also about what is going on in our heads.

How might this change your own approach to fitness or wellness? Here are some thoughts to consider:

1. Mental hygiene is important.  The Dalai Lama, for example, says that “hygiene of emotion” is just as important as hygiene of the body. We need to care for our thoughts and attitudes in the same way we care for our bodies.

2. Fitness is not superficial. Some people are not motivated to exercise because they are less concerned with outward appearances. But according to John J. Ratey, Harvard professor and author of Spark: The Revolutionary new Science of Exercise and the Brain, our brains evolved for movement. Moving the body is an important way to keep the brain sharp. When I go to the gym now, it is not only about how I want to look. It is about how I want to think and feel.

3. A chiseled brain can be just as sexy as chiseled abs. Being in good shape doesn’t only mean looking good in a swimsuit. It means having the mental energy and capacity to process large amounts of information, to make intelligent decisions, and, perhaps most importantly, to truly tune in to another person.

For me, learning about this important link between brain and body fitness has been an incredible motivator. If I have a busy week at work, I don’t even think about skipping the gym. Instead, I hit the gym early and often, knowing that my workouts will give me the energy and focus I need to be in the best shape possible exactly where I need it most—from the neck up.

Jeremy’s book, The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing, is now available in paperback on Amazon.

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