Take a second to imagine what a stack of 1 billion dollars looks like, you can even google it if you'd like. It is a substantial amount of money, enough to fill 10 pallets stacked to the height of a person.
Now, try to imagine what $446 billion dollars looks like. Can you? I can't. Yet, that is the amount of money the United States pharmaceutical market rakes in every year. It is so large, that it holds over 45% of the world's pharmaceutical market¹.
Now imagine that there is a drug that would cost you nothing financially to take and is in never-ending supply.
You've already guessed what it is thanks to the title of this article, it's exercise, and it is so powerful that when regularly "taken" you could throw out your Lipitor, Nexium, Plavix, Crestor, and whatever else resides in your medicine cabinet.
BRAIN HYPERTROPHY: Both amazing and possible
For the non-fitness nerds amongst us, hypertrophy is the scientific term for 'swoll', 'buff', 'jacked', so in other terms, it is the growth in size and (as a result) the strength of a muscle.
It is fairly obvious that with frequent exercise, particularly resistance training, your muscles begin to hypertrophy, but did you know that this can actually happen to your brain as well?
Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki summarizes the PSA-style point in her Ted Talk, The brain-changing effects of exercise, in that exercise is a "miracle drug" for your body and mind.
As a neuroscientist, she became very intrigued on how exercise affects the brain and summarized an enormous amount of research, which we will dive into below. Prepare for your mind to be blown (pun intended)!
"Exercise is the most transformative thing you can do for your brain today." - Dr. Wendy Suzuki
The Big 4
Negative Side Effects
For more side effects, most of which are hilarious, check out this article by "Greatist".
The Question Everyone is Asking: How much?
This is a fair question being that your pharmacist lays out a detailed time table for your prescription. According to recent research, the minimum amount of exercise needed is a meager 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, 3 to 4 times a week.
This does not need to involve heading down to the local gym, it could include activities as simple as aggressively vacuuming your house and rearranging your living-room furniture.
Get Your Office Active
You would think that sitting around at your desk more leads to greater work output, but the opposite is actually true. The average American workplace is becoming increasingly more sedentary.
In 1950, 30% of Americans worked in high-activity occupations. By 2000, only 22% worked in high-activity occupations. Conversely, the percent of people working in low-activity occupations spiked by 14% in that same 50 year period, jumping from 23 to 41%.
Ironically, this decreased physical activity leads to presenteeism, which is being physically at work, but mentally somewhere else; and absenteeism, having to take leave from work due to illness or injury. Both presenteeism and absenteeism obviously contribute to lower work output levels (ACSM, 2018).
Perhaps you work in a company that has recognized the direct and indirect costs of inactivity, and has created a few workplace initiatives to combat this.
Some examples may include bike to work programs, worksite wellness initiatives, treadmill or standing desks, or paid workout time. Did you just say paid workout time? Heck yeah I did. Why aren't more companies doing this?!
How you can Help Be the Change
The ultimate goal is that you and your fellow co-workers want to be healthy for yourselves, not for the benefit of your company, although it's great that they may reap the benefits of your health commitment.
At my former job, one department organized a "Transformation" contest in which the person with the biggest weight loss at the end of 3 months would win a pot of money that they all chipped in to.
No incentive from HR, just good, friendly, competition to improve each others health.
Come to find out, this is a rather common practice in many companies, one such being Draper, Inc. who created not only a 10 week weight-loss challenged dubbed "Dump Your Plump", but its own Wellness Park that includes a one-fifth mile track, workout stations, ping pong, and volleyball courts.
What other companies are doing
Google is an excellent example of a company who actively wants to improve the health of its employees, so much so that it has its on research and development team on the subject. The workplace is pimped out with a slide, ping-pong tables, nap pods, swimming pools, and even LEGO stations.
Motley Fool, a company that specializes in stock analysis, gives all of its employees access to free personal training sessions and wellness consultations as well as 50% reimbursements on race fees. This has skyrocketed wellness engagement in the company to around 86%.
Zappos, like Google and Motley Fool, employe a wellness coordinator, who has created free fitness classes, nap rooms, marathon reimbursements, and reduced gym memberships.
Their coordinator, Kelly Maher says, "It's about getting people to want to do things voluntarily, not forcing them. Success programs are the ones that get team members energized versus forcing it on them."
There is one thing, that when regularly prescribed to, can have you scooping all your prescription drugs into the trash.
We know this is exercise, which could not only keep us out of the doctors office, but save us billions of dollars in money spent on pharmaceuticals.
Imagine a world in which insurance companies aren't helping cover the cost of your prescriptions and surgeries, but instead help cover the cost of gym memberships, race or school sport fees, or even absorbing some, if not all of the cost of personal training.
In the meantime, you can find accountability with people who spend most of your time with, like co-workers, family, friends, and so forth, can help you start building positive habits in regards to exercise.
Test the waters a bit and see if you can be a trend setter at your work, or even at home, by starting a challenge or getting more people on board with being active.
It benefits both you, them, and your company! A true win win.
¹Laporte, J. (2018). Topic: Pharmaceutical Industry in the U.S. Retrieved March 02, 2018, from https://www.statista.com/topics/1719/pharmaceutical-industry/
American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). (2018) Schools and workplaces. Retrieved March 2nd, 2018 from https://www.exerciseismedicine.org/support_page.php/schools-and-workplaces/
Suzuki, W., Dr. (2018, February 28). The brain-changing benefits of exercise. Lecture presented at TED Talks Daily.
Rothfeld, L. (2015, May 15). 7 companies with amazingly unique wellness programs. Retrieved March 01, 2018, from https://mashable.com/2015/05/15/unique-corporate-wellness-programs/#Un5v9n4v6EqR
DeNoon, D. J. (2018). The 10 Most Prescribed Drugs: Most-prescribed drug list differs from list of drugs with biggest market share. Retrieved March 2, 2018, from https://www.webmd.com/drug-medication/news/20110420/the-10-most-prescribed-drugs#2
Alright, two confessions about this salad:
Stop judging and try it, you might just find yourself hooked as well!
Kale the "Queen of Greens"
Brussels Sprouts one of the "World's Healthiest Foods"
Brussels sprouts do indeed get their name from the capital of Belgium, Brussels. They were first grown in the 16th century in this area of the world.
Did you know that it is actually scientifically possible to measure your capacity for self control?
It doesn’t even require some sort of Doctor Kevorkian procedure of opening up your cranium or taking some master-minded psychological test. In fact, it involves the heart, which metaphorically is a pretty lovable concept.
Thanks to extensive research and experiments conducted off of understanding the way our body can respond to stress, researchers have discovered that during moments where we require self-control, our heart rate variability (HRV), or the normal variation in the time interval between heart beats, goes up when our resistance to temptation goes up.
Contrarily of course, if our heart rate variability - think heart rate a little faster and thus more rhythmic - goes down, so does our willpower to resist.
So how do we work to increase our HRV, then? Answers, please!
During stressful situations, our primitive fight or flight response kicks in, and as our bodies gear up, they get ready to take action by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing.
In the days of the Stone Age, this would be great for out maneuvering a surprise incident with a python; but, in modern times our temptations illicit the same fight or flight response and actually makes us more impulsive and likely to give in by decreasing HRV.
Luckily, we also have the pause-and-plan response, labeled as such by psychologist Suzanne Segerstrom. This has the complete opposite effect on our body than the fight-or-flight response by lowering heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, increasing HRV, and allowing a sense of calm and relaxation to come over us.¹
Did You Know?
How to Strengthen Your Pause & Plan REsponse
I would be remiss if I did not say finding what works for you is completely individual for everyone, but ultimately you have to be willing to embrace self-control and the building or breaking of habits as a process, and not something that you can just do a couple of times and expect to stick for good.
I have summarized below some research proven methods to start implementing into your life. Pick one to implement each week until all have become healthy habits.
This is essentially like going to the gym, but for your brain. When you ask your brain to focus on one thing, your breath, or even nothing at all, you are actively working your mental muscle.
The daily practice of as little as 5 minutes of meditation can enhance a wide range of self-control skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness. Get started by:
At the Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, two researchers – one a psychologist, one a biologist – conducted a study for a new treatment in enhancing self-control, in which they were completely stunned by the findings.
Six men and eighteen women were given the treatment for two months, with the ultimate goal to improve attention span and be able to ignore distractions. However, the treatment was so effective they not only increased their focus in these areas, but reduced their smoking, drinking, and caffeine intake without anyone having asked them to.
They were also less impulsive, more frequently on time, eating less junk food and more in control of their emotions. What was the treatment? Exercise².
Dr. Kelly McGonigal writes in her book, The Willpower Instinct, that “Exercise turns out to be the closest thing to a wonder drug that self-control scientists have discovered.”
It has immediate, as well as long-term effects. For example, fifteen minutes on the treadmill can reduce cravings, which researchers have seen with dieters and smokers.
Long-term effects are even more impressive, as exercise works just as well as the antidepressant Prozac in elevating mood and decreasing feelings of depression. Furthermore, exercise increases baseline heart rate variability, increases brain cells, and overall makes your brain and body bigger, stronger, and faster.³
This begs the question, how much of the miracle “drug” do you need? When writing your goals, set a goal relevant to working out that is realistic and that you know will be achievable.
If there was a time you fell off the fitness wagon before by doing too much too soon, well.. let’s not repeat that mistake! There would be no point in setting a goal that you know has failed before or that you may very well abandon in a few weeks.
Get your Rest
I will never forget something my Uncle Robbie, who trained for the Olympics in downhill skiing many years ago, said, "Alysa, never forget that an hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours."
He had a point there, because the likelihood for many of us getting over six hours of sleep once the clock strikes midnight is pretty slim. Kind of reminds you of Cinderella, doesn't it? Except instead of turning from a princess to a maid, you turn into a hot mess.
Getting six or less hours of sleep has immense impacts on our daily functioning, as studies show that "the effects of sleep deprivation on your brain are equivalent to being mildly intoxicated--a state that many of us can attest does little for self control," says Dr. McGonigal.
Sleep deprivation saps willpower throughout the day, so bring your habits full circle by trying out practicing your 5 minutes of meditation before bed. Studies show that this helps relax you and allows your brain to go from busy and high functioning, down to a nice, restorative ideal. Ahhhhh, let the sheep jump.
This is one of the more popular health topics that circulates through the health world, so I won't go into detail on what you should be eating and why it is helpful to willpower, because I have a feeling you already know about the what and why.
It is how that often the harder of the three to do. Here are some simple strategies to add in to your week (and don't just try, do them).
Spend Quality time with loved ones
We are social creatures, and enjoying the company of loved ones can be very therapeutic for relieving stress. Stress, whether physical or psychological, is the enemy of self-control.
Now, I understand that the stay-at-home mom probably often thinks "get me away from these little gremlins!" so her quality time may be with close friends and away from the kids. A working father on the other hand, may have the opposite need, as he isn't around the kids as often.
Fall Off, Get back on
You will slip up at some point. Just accept it! Drop your ego and acknowledge that you are no more perfect than any other human being.
Allow yourself to feel okay with making mistakes, because mistakes mean you're growing. However, let's not be okay with making them over and over again. Otherwise, your self-growth will not only come to a screeching halt, but you will start to drive yourself crazy!
Avoid the crazy failure cycle by allowing time to reflect on what caused the failure in the first place and then have the self-love and determination to pick yourself back up, fix it, and keep it movin'.
Get the Worksheet
Within the Essentials Program, there are two science and research based worksheets to help you implement long-term change with your health goals. The first is a goal setting worksheet, which will teach you how to properly set goals.
The second worksheet is how to stick with these goals by building up your self-control and good habits while breaking bad habits. It's time to break away from the 92% of people who can't finish out their New Year's Resolution and become part of the 8% who will.⁵
Diamond, D. (2013, January 02). Just 8% of People Achieve Their New Year's Resolutions. Here's How They Do It. Retrieved February 17, 2018, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/dandiamond/2013/01/01/just-8-of-people-achieve-their-new-years-resolutions-heres-how-they-did-it/#6389e3d3596b
1, 3. McGonigal, K. (2013). The willpower instinct: how self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. New York: Avery.
2. Oaten, Megan, and Ken Cheng. "Improved Self-control: The Benefits of a Regular Program of Academic Study." International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders. January 17, 2017. Accessed December 17, 2018. https://researchers.mq.edu.au/en/publications/improved-self-control-the-benefits-of-a-regular-program-of-academ.