Meeting Basic Physical Needs

Fitness; sports and healthy lifestyle concept: training shoes and sports equipment connecting together

This article is a part of a series of articles that covers practices to support your mental health and ability to be at your best when it matters most. 

In this last article in the series, we will explore the impact that our physical needs have on our brain’s performance.

We will look at:

  • Sleep 
  • Recovery
  • Movement

From the brain functioning article, you may recall that the rider, is one of the most energy systems in our brain and he tires easily. Scientific experiments show us that the different parts of our brain compete for its limited resources like oxygen and glucose. 

The body and brain have a limited capacity of resources, which Lisa Feldman Barret calls our body budget. We use the term Body Battery.

If we want to maintain the capacity of the Rider to execute on his capabilities and therefore his higher level competencies; it is critical that we implement enabling behaviours to meet our physical needs.

Without our physical needs in place, our rider cannot function optimally and our elephant launches the threat response (defaulting behaviour to self-preservation, reactivity and heightened anger).

Enabling Behaviours for Recharging

Enabling behaviours are often simple practices that increase our capacity to use our foundational capabilities and therefore our higher level competencies

Sleep

Sleep is the number one factor to influence optimal brain performance. Sleep helps to improve all of our rider’s capabilities and ability to execute on the higher level competencies. When you need to be at our best, make your sleep priority no.1.

We documented the brain and body’s need for sleep in these two articles here:

If you are looking for more information and practical tools to manage stress, energy and attention; our Energy & Attention course provides science based approaches that you can embed in your day-to-day schedule.

Day Time Recovery

The brain is an immensely complex organ. But it is certainly not a machine that can work optimally at high speeds for long periods of time. For example, the Rider who handles most of our executive functions at work (solving problems, making decisions, controlling our impulses) is a very energy-hungry system and tires easily.

At a minimum, you can impact how you feel and perform, with as little as two 3-20 min Recharge sessions during your work day. These sessions could be scheduled before important meetings in which you want to be present. Or at the start of Focus time sessions in which you want to concentrate.

Your Recharge sessions could be passive, spent reading a fiction book, doing a breathing exercise, meditating or chatting to a close colleague. Or you could take an active break by taking a 10+ minute walk in nature, perform 20 squats or lunges, or perform 20 burpees. 

Here are some simple and short breathing exercises that you can perform anywhere:

Breathing exercises:

Technique:

Here is a short video on how to perform the breathing technique correctly. 

While you become familiar with these breathing exercises, it helps to place your hands around your sides (middle finger approximately level with your belly button).

Your thumbs should be on your back and your finders towards the front. As you breathe in you should be able to feel that your thumbs and fingers are pushed out. The whole abdomen expands. Some people find it useful to think about breathing down your back as you perform the exercise.

Regularity: You could practice these exercises once per day or when needed.

Breathing Practice 1: Calm and Focus (best for when you need a little brain boost and more focus)

Sit with the middle of your ear, shoulder and hip in line. Keep your chest raised and shoulders back without being uncomfortable or stiff.

Duration: Perform for at least 2-5 minutes.

Rhythm:

  1. Breathe in through your nose for a count of 4-5
  2. Pause for a count of 4-5
  3. Breathe out through the nose or mouth slowly for a count of 4-5
  4. Pause for a count of 4-5
  5. Repeat

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Breathing Practice 2: Deep relaxation (best when feeling stressed, anxious or to relax before sleep)

Sit or lie down. Same instructions as above, different rhythm.

Duration: Perform for at least 2-5 minutes.

Rhythm:

  1. Breathe in through your nose for a count of 4-7
  2. Pause for a count of 2
  3. Breathe out through the nose or mouth slowly for a count of 6-10
  4. Pause for a count of 2
  5. Repeat

You can increase or decrease the duration of the breaths. The most important factor is that the exhalation is longer than the inhalation (whilst being comfortable and relaxing).

More breathing exercises and meditation techniques can be found in our Energy & Attention course.

Movement

A lack of movement = a lack of cognitive skills.

John Ratey is working hard to promote a healthier lifestyle via movement. In his book, Go Wild, that he co-authored with Richard Manning; John uses some hard hitting evidence. For example, John mentions that J. Eric Ahlskog and his colleagues found that exercise not only helped treat cognitive impairments, it helped prevent them. 

Even though the studies were focused on dementia and Alzheimer’s; improvements were found on a wide range of impairments, from memory loss to mental acuity. The researchers considered that cognitive impairment was a cause of being too sedentary.

Why is this? When you move, you increase the circulation of blood to the brain, which delivers more oxygen, nutrients and neurotransmitters (called the vascular effect). But interestingly this is not the biggest benefit. Another, more major benefit, is improved neuroplasticity and neurogenesis

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change (to rewire itself). It helps us to learn, develop, to recover from injuries and it is critical for behaviour change. You can read more about it here. Neurogenesis is the birth of new brain cells (neurons). Essentially, this is brain growth. Related to growth, exercise has also been found to prevent a loss of grey matter.

More specifically, exercise has been found to increase the size of the brain’s hippocampus (memory processing) which means that exercise increases memory

Exercise has also been found to improve the connections and functioning of the whole brain. A lack of exercise has been found to decrease the brain’s functioning and therefore the rider’s capabilities and higher level competencies are also inhibited.

John has discovered that this holds true for young as well as old brains. Much of the benefit from exercise, is thought to be linked to the fact that exercise places demands on the brain which causes it to release brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1). 

BDNF helps brain cells to survive and encourages the growth of new cells. It is vital to brain functions such as learning, memory and higher thinking. IGF-1 supports growth.

It is considered that the quickest way to boost BDNF is through vigorous exercise. Below you will find an example programme you can use. Martin Gibala’s research has shown that as little as three sessions of 20 seconds at maximal or near maximal effort, effectively and efficiently boosts health and fitness.

Example exercise programme to boost BDNF and fitness:

Run outdoors our use Indoor bike/Running machine/X-Trainer/Rower. If you do not have a regular exercise routine, start with the indoor bike.

1. 3 minutes – Warm up for 3 minutes – walk and light jog
2. 30 seconds – Run at 50% of max speed up a steep hill (or use elevation or machine resistance)
3. 60 seconds – Walk
4. 30 seconds – Run at 75% of max speed up a steep hill
5. 60 seconds – Walk
6. 30 seconds – Run at Max speed up a steep hill
7. 90 seconds – Walk
8. Repeat 6 and 7, three to eight times
9. 3 minutes – Cool down – walk

You can find more examples of movements for health and fitness in our Energy & Attention course. This course also offers advice on eating for brain performance.

Summary

Our brain is very energy hungry, especially the system represented by our rider, who helps us to execute the capabilities and competencies that we need through out the day. By design, our brain cannot work at high speeds continuously.

Sleep, rest, movement and the right fuel, help to optimise our brain’s performance. 

Without these factors our brain cannot function optimally and our elephant launches the threat response (defaulting behaviour to self-preservation, reactivity and heightened anger).

By simply prioritising 7-8 hours of good quality sleep (aided by good sleep hygiene before bed), we provide our selves with the best possible start.

By getting as little as 20-30 minutes of moderate walking, split up throughout the day you can provide the brain with a better supply of oxygen, nutrients and neurotransmitters, in addition to helping the brain to change and grow (via BDNF release).

By eating foods that contain nutrients such as folate, B12, omega-3 and anthocyanins (obtained from purple foods) you are able to help the rider to increase its execution of its capabilities in addition to helping the brain to change and grow (via BDNF release). 

If you are looking for more information and practical tools to manage stress, energy and attention; our Energy & Attention course provides science based approaches that you can embed in your day-to-day schedule.

All the articles in this series:

Part 1: Introduction + Brain and Behaviour Model

Part 2: Brain functioning and performance basics

Part 3: The benefits of having a sense of Purpose

Part 4: Meeting Basic Social and Emotional Needs

Part 5: Meeting Physical Needs (this article)

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