Exercise powers your brain as well as your body

On Monday last week I was in my former home town of Hobart for a presentation. After the session I ducked off to Hobart Aquatic Centre for my standard Monday swim.

I dived into the pool and started turning over arms that felt significantly heavier than normal.

I was coming off a big weekend of fitness and family activities and have also been travelling a lot. Rather than sticking to the planned session, I took off my watch, forgot about tracking the session, and just swam 20 laps at a leisurely, enjoyable pace.

It has taken a long time, but I've finally learned when you're feeling tired or have a lot on your mind - or both - rather than smashing out a high-intensity exercise session, the best thing can be to dial it back and just enjoy moving, switching off the internal chatter. Here are five ways a low-intensity workout can boost your body and brain.

Exercising ...

1. Stops those ruminating thoughts

Seaworthiness sessions can be a great way to decompress, disconnect and dial out from the outside world. Exercise doesn't need to be all about laps, reps, heart rate zones and measuring calories burned.

Research shows there are multiple mental health benefits of a low- to moderate-intensity workout., with subjects showing less brain activity in an area associated with brooding - which many highly stressed execs do far too much of.

More and more I'm starting to use lower-intensity exercise as a way of calming and quietening the busy monkey that can sometimes make a lot of noise in my mind.

2. Makes exercise more enjoyable

It's hard to notice beautiful surroundings or how your muscles feel when you're always going full throttle and sweating and grunting in a high-intensity training session.


Have you ever gone for a leisurely walk (or what cyclists call a slow coffee ride) along a route where you normally try and smash your Strava or MapMyRun PBs, and suddenly noticed how beautiful is the ocean, the lake, the park, the forest, or the paddock?

Dial it down a notch and you become a lot more reflective taking in the fresh air and connecting with the outside world. You can really hone in on how your body feels and move more mindfully, which.

Next time you're really tired and fatigued and the last thing you feel like doing is a high-intensity workout, try a 'work in' and pick an activity you enjoy, going at your own pace and being present in the moment. I call this mindful movement.

3. Releases tension

Stress can manifest itself in a variety of ways. I personally notice that my shoulders start to creep up towards my ears and my upper back becomes tight. How about you, where do you feel tension in your body?

While a high-intensity session can help release stress from a hard day, you also run the risk of increased injury if your body is a big pile of impermeable knots.

When I feel really stiff I try to embrace what I call 'a daily dose of the Golden Door' with a splash in the pool (where I act more like a playful dolphin than trying to smash my PB), a relaxing message, or an easy stretch listening to my favourite tunes.

4. Helps adapt and grow

If your workout schedule involves a lot of heavy training, a few light days are essential to let your body recover. This is the premise of progressive overload. Train – Recover – Grow.

If you've been hitting the gym hard, but haven't been seeing the gains, it's time to turn on what my four-year old son calls his 'listening ears'. One of the first things I learned as an athlete is that your body doesn't grow in the gym. It's the crucial days following where muscles rebuild and grow stronger to tolerate a new load the next time you hit the weights, the running track or the field.

These 'light days' are just as beneficial for your brain as your body. A gentle yoga, Pilates, or stretch class can release tired muscles, and allows you to reflect on the day's events and make sense of the world.

Doing an easy fitness session before you walk in the door at the end of the day is a great way to slow down and transition from a constantly wired corporate worker to a calm and present mum, dad, partner or friend.

5. Connects you with others

Fact: People with greater social support and who do higher levels of physical activity have reduced incidence of mental illness. Working out with others can be the perfect antidote for stress.

My weekly Friday morning cycle squad is the perfect blend of the 3 F's - fitness, friendship and fun. Developing a bunch of fitness mates is a great way to connect with friends and a natural physiological way to get the endorphins pulsing through your body. Many of mine or my fitness mates' challenges have been sorted out after a few laps cranking around the park.

And if Lycra isn't your thing, you can easily opt for a walk-and-talk, an easy swim, shoot a few hoops or a quick bat in the nets.

How do you use fitness sessions to recharge your mind? Let us know in the comments section.

Workplace performance expert Andrew May has been helping his white-collar clients achieve both physical and mental gains for decades, and has learned a trick or 20 - plus a few of the pitfalls - along the way.

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