We all know that exercise provides extensive physical benefits - this is far from groundbreaking news - but as much as I knew the statistics, and even enjoyed exercise, it was too often the thing on my to-do-list that got pushed to tomorrow… or perhaps the next day. I always seemed to have far too much practice to do to have time for a walk, or would feel guilty if I was to take time out to do a yoga class. Until I discovered the impact that exercise has on our brains…
Boost energy levels
My mother always used to say ‘you have to spend energy to make energy’ and I always used to file it along side ‘you won’t get curly hair if you don’t eat your crusts’. It’s extremely counterintuitive to go for a walk when you are feeling fatigued from a taxing rehearsal; it’s probably much more tempting to turn on the telly, or catch up on facebook. Unfortunately, research is once again proving my mother correct - exercise, particularly low intensity exercise, can reduce fatigue levels by up to 65%! The catch is, of course, getting your brain to believe you as it screams out in protest! (Check out this post on how to avoid procrastination.)
Mediate stress and anxiety
The anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effect of exercise is well documented, with one meta-analysis of 49 studies indicating that exercise groups showed greater reduction in anxiety over groups that received other anxiety reducing treatment. Not only has exercise been shown to reduce anxiety levels, but it is also proven to decrease sensitivity to anxiety, making you progressively less reactive to things that may have made you anxious in the past. After all, many of the physical reactions to anxiety are just like the physical responses to exercise (increased heart rate, perspiration etc.) so exercise becomes akin to an exposure treatment, where over time, people learn to associate the physical components of anxiety with safety rather than threat.
Have you ever wished there was a happiness drug you could take to improve your mood that wasn’t illegal of bad for you? Turns out there is, as such… When you exercise, a powerful cocktail of neurotransmitters are released into the body, including norepinepherine (important for concentration), serotonin (commonly linked with feelings of wellbeing and happiness) and dopamine (which controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centres). Exercise also releases endorphins (the ‘feel good’ chemical) that is basically what painkillers and illegal drugs are imitating. That’s a pretty potent cocktail!
I remember hearing about a friend of the family who was suffering from depression after receiving severe burns to a large portion of his body and was unable to work. The hospital used to take him 5km out of town and tell him to walk back in each day. This turned out to be an effective treatment for his depression. In fact, studies have shown exercise to be an excellent means of managing depression, not only initially, but also as a means of reducing relapse rates. In one study, depressive patients were divided into three groups - one was administered antidepressants as treatment, the next exercised for 45 minutes, three times per week and the final group did a combination of both. All three groups had similar improvements after the four month study, which is already impressive, but 6 months after that, the lowest relapse rate was from the exercise group! (9%, as compared to 31% for the combo group and 38% for the antidepressant group!)
Studies have also shown that participants are more creative after exercise, which has to be good news for performing artists, right? One study asked participants to complete a creativity test either after aerobic exercise or after watching television for an equal period, and results indicated a significant improvement in creativity after exercise (and not so much after watching television!).
Exercise improves cognitive functioning and can improve memory even directly after completing exercise. This is great news for learning repertoire! Exercise also stimulates the production and release of BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) which builds Myelin. (Remember Myelin? That’s the insulator that wraps around the neural connections in our brain to increase the speed and accuracy of our skills). So basically, exercise is also helping to consolidate the building of skills within our brain.
Burn up excess adrenaline
Anxiety triggers the body’s evolutionary fight or flight response, which in turn leads to the release of adrenaline into the blood stream. Unfortunately, in performance situation, this adrenaline rarely gets a sufficient outlet (as it would if we were to run away or start fighting the audience!), and tends to remain in our muscles, leading to stiffness, lethargy and a feeling of excess effort. Whilst exercising after a concert that finishes at 11pm may not be terribly realistic, regular exercise, particularly leading up to important events can be an extremely effective means of burning off excess adrenaline, and signalling to the body that the threat is over.
All this research makes me think, as a performer, how can you afford NOT to exercise?! If I told there were a pill that would improve your memory, mood, energy levels and creativity, whilst reducing your anxiety, without side effect, would you not take it in a heartbeat? And yet, with exercise there are no drugs necessary! The best news is that you don’t need to do 2 hours of exercise a day to benefit, in fact, for the mental benefits of exercise, more moderate levels are preferable! Rather than being an obstacle, exercise can become an essential part of your mental (oh, and physical!) health as a performer.
If you’d like to learn more you can sign up (on the right hand side of this page) to receive blog posts direct to your email. Alternatively, please click the little ‘like’ symbol below or subscribe to my RSS feed to receive regular material on how you can use the latest psychological research to dissolve your blocks to peak performance. Or, if you're ready to tackle your inhibitions to performance head on, contact me to discuss your options and arrange an appointment.