Exploring the link between exercise and brain function at work

Recent studies draw an interesting parallel between some kinds of exercise and improved mental function.

I do not like to exercise for exercise's sake. In fact, the only exercise I am likely to get would be in fleeing from someone who's trying to get me to exercise. However, I don't mind exercise if it goes hand in hand with a productive activity.

In other words, the only way I can exercise is if I'm accomplishing something else at the same time. For example, I don't mind walking if I can cut the grass at the same time. I will use an exercise bike but only if I can read a book at the same time. It's more a matter of a low threshold for boredom than it is laziness. (That's my story and I'm sticking to it.)

So imagine my happy surprise when I read Jason Hiner's blog called, "Can desk treadmills save the health of knowledge workers?" Exercise while I work? Sign me up!

What attracts me most about this idea is not really the physical fitness but more of the mental boost it gives you. On the occasion when I do walk merely for exercise I find myself coming up with pretty good ideas about how to solve issues at work or at home. (But then I usually just go home and collapse into a wheezing ball of post-exercise resentment.)

So what could I achieve if I got to exercise and work? There's been a lot of interest lately in what some scientists call the Default Mode Network of the brain. DMN activity is highest during passive activity like daydreaming. Some scientists believe that the degradation in the DMN is a potential marker of diseases such as Alzheimer's or Autism.

Now the deal is that when a healthy brain is focused on a specific activity requiring focus (like much of the knowledge worker's day-to-day activity), DMN diminishes rapidly.

A study was done wherein FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) was used to investigate the effects of walking on the DMN in two groups of subjects. Taking benchmark tests at 6 months and 12 months, researchers found DMN connectivity significantly enhanced in a group of walkers as opposed to the control group, workers who just did toning and stretching exercises.

The walkers also exhibited increased connectivity in another area of brain circuitry called the Fronto-Executive Network (FEN) that is known to aid in the ability to perform complex tasks like planning, scheduling, and multi-tasking.

I thought this was pretty interesting and could make a good case for desk treadmills, at least until cost and liability issues gets them laughed out of the boardroom.