It’s no secret that physical health and mental health are related.
The things that you do for your body undoubtedly have an effect on your brain – just think about how good you feel after a workout. Releasing those feel-good endorphins can lessen depression and ease anxiety. But even simple exercises can make you more focused, which we could all probably use a little more of, especially when life gets pretty hectic.
"There is good evidence that exercise behaves like medicine to improve brain health and thinking skills. There is a growing body of science behind this," says Dr. Scott McGinnis, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
It’s easy to become overwhelmed or overstimulated when work and life are increasingly busy and demand more from us. That usually means it can also be more difficult to make time for activities that benefit our health. But look at it as an investment. A little time each day spent on yourself will repay you in more productivity and concentration.
These are a few things you can do to get your body moving that will also focus your brain – and you don’t need much time to do them. Find a few moments in your day between meetings or put an hour in your schedule.
1. Take a brisk walk
Even if you’re short on time, a brisk walk can have a big impact on your brain, and there are increasingly more studies to show it. In a 2021 study, men and women who walked regularly saw improvements in their brain’s white matter, which is considered the brain’s wiring. Researchers believe that this could be great for memory.
An eight hour work day at your desk can take a toll on the body. If you get up and feel a little like you’ve molded to your chair, it’s time to take on some stretching. You’ll feel a bit looser and return to your work feeling a bit more focused too. Stretching can increase serotonin levels, so when your work is becoming *a lot*, take a step back, stretch and you’ll probably find you feel a little bit lighter afterward.
Tip: Always ease into stretching to prevent any injuries. If you’re spending a lot of time working at a desk, you might need to work on your flexibility and mobility. It’ll take a little bit of time, but it’s worth it.
3. Breathing exercises
Focusing on your breath is one sure way to bring yourself back to the present moment when you feel lost in the throes of multitasking. Slowing down your breathing and not only refocuses the mind, it soothes the nervous system. You’ll feel your concentration return and your anxiety ease.
In between meetings, break out the headphones. A quick dance break can really boost your mood. Stanford reachers say the benefits are plenty: you boost serotonin levels, exercise cognitive ability and integrate all kinds of brain functions that we don’t typically use at once. Dancing, whether it’s in a class or free-style, will teach your brain to do new things, which can be a great exercise in focus.
There’s lots to love about hiking: the views, the fresh air, the adventure. It also makes you smarter, according to researchers. If you really need to reset your focus, hiking is a great option. After all, it’s hard to think about much else when you’re focusing on your surroundings. That can be enough of a brain break to really give you some distance from your work and you can return refreshed.
Letting go from the stressors of everyday life is not always easy, but even just a few moments of meditation can act as a reset for your brain (and your physical health too!). “Meditation is thought to work via its effects on the sympathetic nervous system, which increases heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure during times of stress,” Harvard Health explains. When your brain is feeling a little bit scattered, take some time to meditate. It’ll help bring you back to the present moment so you can return to your work as your best self.
Tip: Meditation can be intimidating. The thought of sitting still and letting thoughts float by for any amount of time can feel daunting. If that sounds like you, try a walking meditation or journaling. Both are great ways to add a little mindfulness to your day.
7. Take a class
Sometimes you just need to get away from it all so that you can regroup. Fitness classes are good at holding your attention so you can take what feels like a mental break. You’re simultaneously releasing all kinds of brain chemicals that are great for mental health. You don’t even need a gym membership. Search your favorite kind of workout online and you’re sure to find something that fits your schedule and fitness level.
Biking is a big lesson in focus. While you’re pedaling along you also have to watch for pedestrians, drivers and fellow cyclists. Attention to detail is a requirement in cycling and you often have to make split-second decisions. Even if it’s just around your neighborhood or a short commute, a daily ride is an easy way to help your brain adapt to situations where you really need to focus on what’s in front of you while minding the surrounding distractions.
9. Pick up a new sport
By now we know just how good physical exercise is for the body’s total health, so maybe it’s no surprise that learning a new sport can be incredibly healthy for your mental health. While the physical aspect is great exercise, it’s the act of learning that really helps the brain. Researchers say that keeping the brain active will help cognitive ability, so why not combine it with physical activity and get the most out of one activity?
Rest may seem like the opposite of exercising, but sometimes we forget just how regenerative rest can be. It does a lot to repair the body and mind. Going to bed a bit earlier and focusing on habits that boost restfulness (like limiting screen time before bed) can make a noticeable difference in your day. Rest can also look like a bunch of different activities, from taking a walk totally unplugged to cultivating your ultimate nighttime routine.
Written by Kara Mason.