Exercise is like a prescription drug – Use it but don’t abuse it. Exercise can just as easily wear you down as it can pick you up. Did you know that if you exercise at moderate to high intensity (as percent of heart rate max) then you are actually increasing your levels of stress hormones?
As business people with ever growing inboxes and to do lists we tend take our exercise in short, intense snaps and think of it as separate or as an escape from work. This may not be helping our bodies that much, but certainly isn’t helping our minds or our strategic thinking.
Steve Jobs was famous in Palo Alto for going on long meandering walks. Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen tells an anecdote about driving around his neighbourhood when he had to swerve to avoid what he thought to be a crazy old man wandering on the street. On closer inspection, the ‘crazy old man’ was Steve Jobs, in his trademark glasses and black turtleneck. Jobs also mentioned in interviews that he used these walks for problem-solving and creative thinking.
It’s part of the reason, Neuroscientist Shane O’Mara suspects, that the prolific writer and thinker Bertrand Russell said that walking was integral to his work. Likewise, the Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton, who pondered a single problem on his daily walks for seven years, eventually inventing a number system called quaternions, without which we couldn’t make electric toothbrushes or mobile phones.
O’Mara believes that plenty of regular walking unlocks the cognitive powers of the brain like nothing else. O’Mara’s enthusiasm for walking ties in with both of his main interests as a professor of experimental brain research: stress, depression and anxiety; and learning, memory and cognition. “It turns out that the brain systems that support learning, memory and cognition are the same ones that are very badly affected by stress and depression,” he says. “And by a quirk of evolution, these brain systems also support functions such as cognitive mapping,” by which he means our internal GPS system. But these aren’t the only overlaps between movement and mental and cognitive health that neuroscience has identified.
Throughout my working life, for companies, as a founder and now working as an Entrepreneur in Residence with digital start-ups and scale-ups I’ve spent my fair time in boardrooms. And I think it’s time we dumped this approach whenever we can.
As an archaeologist and qualified group walking leader. I’ve always walked – to find sites, with the dog, to or from work, before important meetings or presentations and whenever I can in the great outdoors. I truly believe the best decisions are made with the clarity of mind that comes from the heady mix of exercise, wildness and engaging with others.
This is why I invite entrepreneurs, business leaders and executive teams I work with to ditch the boardroom and go on a hike or to join me on adventures that might just change their thinking. We explore wild places, do moderately challenging things, discuss businesses and through this develop clear sighted entrepreneurial thinking.
I’d highly advise you try it for yourself.