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Smart Professors - Exercise

Professors are pretty smart people. We have to be smart to complete all of the requirements for doctoral and other terminal degrees that qualify us to teach. At the risk of being contrary, I want to suggest that we are not smart enough. Having had the privilege of looking into professors’ lives for many years through my coaching and workshops with professors, I have noticed that while professors are very dedicated to their students and their institutions they can get into habits of working hard without always working smart.

For the next few issues of this newsletter, I am going to challenge you to work smarter instead of harder. I want you to be smarter for your own sake because as you handle your academic responsibilities quicker and better you will have time and energy to create a great life. I also want you to be smarter for the sake of higher education because the smarter you are, the more creatively you will contribute to your discipline and to the quality of instruction at your institution.

This article draws on the research on how peak performers maximize their brain power and skills to do their best. Getting smarter is a matter of building new habits, not ever an easy task of course. However, as you finish the work of this semester and prepare for the next, this is the perfect time to build habits of working smarter.

Maximizing Your Brain Power

One way that you can become smarter is to establish a habit of regular physical exercise. By exercise, I am emphasizing primarily aerobic exercise, any exercise that elevates and sustains your heart rate for 20 minutes or more. Although weight training and stretching support fitness it is unclear at this time whether those activities benefit your brain in the same ways that aerobic exercise does.

Here are some research findings why aerobic exercise makes you smarter.

  • It stimulates the production of dopamine, a brain neurotransmitter that gives you the ability to develop a vision for the future and to set and complete goals. It makes you smarter because it gives you the chemical foundation to do the higher level planning and execution involved in teaching, research, and campus service.

  • It stimulates the production of brain derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), a brain neurotransmitter that stimulates your neurons to multiply and to grow connections. Neuroscientists describe it as “Miracle Grow” for the brain.

  • It stimulates the release of serotonin, a brain neurotransmitter that gives you a relaxed contented feeling, the opposite of feeling of anxiety and depression. While most people know about the physical benefits of exercise, many do not know about the mood-enhancement benefit of moderate exercise, usually experienced within five minutes following exercising. This effect of serotonin makes us smarter indirectly because it counters feelings of depression and anxiety both of which interfere with optimum brain functioning. When people feel depressed, they experience a brain dulling feeling. When they feel anxious, their range of thinking narrows to the most immediate matters at hand. By eliminating those moods, serotonin helps us to think easily, widely, and optimistically, experiences which support innovation in research and creative pedagogy.

  • Creativity increases during and after exercising because the brain is stimulated into a more relaxed intuitive mode. Posing a problem to be solved just prior to an exercise session will result in better solutions than staring at your computer monitor trying to solve the problem. I call this the “bed, bath, and beyond” effect. No, this phrase does not refer to shopping for towels and household what-nots but instead refers to the three most times of most likely to produce easy problem solving: bed (falling asleep/waking up), bath (showering/ bathing/swimming), and beyond (other activities such as driving and exercising in which people report this effect).

Why Exercise Is So Hard to Do?

Here are some of the reasons why establishing the exercise habit is so difficult to establish.

  • Exercise is hard work, unpleasant, often uncomfortable, and involves sweating.

    [Full disclosure: I exercise everyday between 1- 1 ½ hours and I still don’t like it. But I do like the benefits of exercise. It makes me happier, healthier, fitter, and smarter than I was before I started exercising regularly.]

    While some of the mood and brain tune-up benefits can be experienced as soon as you begin to exercise, you have to establish a habit of exercising regularly before you experience the other benefits such as fitness and stamina, better sleep, weight loss, or lowered blood sugar and cholesterol. You can look forward to these effects as you build up your stamina but many people have difficulty getting past the hard work, discomfort, unpleasantness and sweating to get there.

  • It is socially non-normative to exercise. In the US population, 30 % of adults exercise regularly, 25 % never exercise, and 45 % attempt occasional or seasonal exercise but don’t exercise the rest of the time. Exercising is sometimes viewed among professors as something people who don’t work very hard do for leisure instead of something that people who work hard do to work smarter.

  • The brain benefits of creativity and mood management are not well known even among medical professionals. Both anxiety and depression symptoms decrease and disappear with regular exercise. Research by James Blumenthal, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Duke University, comparing exercise, anti-depressants, and placebo pills has shown that exercise is equal in its effects to the anti-depressant medication for the successful treatment of depression. Blumenthal found a surprising long term benefit a year after the study: the depressed subjects who had been assigned to the exercise treatment maintained the anti-depressant benefit better than the drug group. Jasper Smits, co-director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas found that people prone to anxiety symptoms are far less likely to experience anxiety if they exercise regularly.

    Yet seldom do any depressed patients ask their doctors for an exercise regimen to help their depression. Few general practitioners and even psychologists who treat depression and anxiety recommend this powerful treatment modality even though it is cheap, effective, and without side effects when done in moderation by patients without a medical prohibition against it.

  • Starting out too hard and exercising past your respiratory threshold (breathing so labored that you can’t talk and exercise) will actually postpone the mood enhancing effects by 30 minutes. Too high a starting level of exertion is also more likely to result in soreness and even injury. Starting slow with moderation is an effective counter to this problem.

  • Most professors make the time management mistake of dropping out support activities such as exercise at the very time when they are most stressed. The payoffs from continued exercising while you are very busy outweigh the time investment since working with a clear head and a good mood makes the stress decrease and the work fly by.
How to Use Exercise to Get Smarter

  1. Start slow. Don’t exceed your respiratory threshold. Even though you may breathe deeply, remain able to talk while you exercise.

  2. Check with your doctor before you begin an exercise program if you any disease condition such as heart symptoms that might be adversely affected by exercise.

  3. Change the cultural mythology of exercise as leisure by inviting fellow professors to join you on a campus walk. Set a work agenda for “walking meetings” such as discussing research ideas or new course offerings. Make it normative for professors on your campus to exercise.

  4. Set exercise time into your schedule, and then build your work obligations around it. You will never “find time” to exercise.

  5. Stretch a little before exercise and a lot afterwards to prevent injury.

  6. Find an activity that you like to do or at least don’t hate. Jogging isn’t the only aerobic exercise. Swim, walk, row, take a spinning class, or just put on music, dance DVD or a Wii dance program and dance around for 20 minutes in your own living room. No one will judge your dance moves nor your fitness level in the privacy of your own home.

  7. Mix it up. Muscles adjust to routines and fail to produce the same benefits. Alternate walking every other day with an aerobics class to provide variety for your brain and your body.


Use your winter break to get moving. Then keep it going when the new semester starts.

© Copyright 2010 Susan Robison. All rights reserved. The above material is copyrighted but you may retransmit or distribute it to whomever you wish as long as not a single word is changed, added or deleted, including the contact information.

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