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How you can solve problems by taking exercise

Many find it problematic to take exercise. But what if exercise instead could be a way of solving problems?

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard walked so much that his shoes needed new soles eight times in a year. He has written:

”Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it."

Exercise as medication for the brain

Recent research on brain function supports Kierkegaard’s observations.1 Exercise increases the blood flow in the brain. Also, new small blood vessels are formed. By far the most sensational new finding is that exercise is associated with increased numbers of nerve cells in the brain. In the frontal lobe in particular, both the size of the nerve cell population and the junctions between them have been found to increase.2

A frontal lobe in good form allows us greater control over our impulses. This brain region is also involved in problem solving. There seems to be direct effect of exercise on the organisation of the brain that make us better equipped to deal calmly with issues in ordinary life and to solve the underlying problems more competently.1, 3

Heightened creativity

There is also some evidence that people performed better in certain psychological tests of creativity after treadmill walking than they did after a period of sitting still. The ability to think more creatively would tend to make us better at problem solving.4 Fitness-promoting exercise came out as especially beneficial.

The positive effects on the brain will presumably be larger the more we train– but regular walks are also effective.4

You can think about your questions as you take exercise

Often, if we decide to exercise just to boost certain organ functions, our efforts won’t last long. There is evidence showing that we only find true motivation when we engage wholly in the experience and do what we do for its own sake and not to hit targets.5 

You might engage in the sounds you hear in nature or in the city, or try other ways that help you to reach out beyond your self and grasp a greater whole, a wider context. These are times when it also becomes easier to examine problems from the outside and solve them in new, unexpected ways. Perhaps you can keep your questions at the back of your mind as you exercise?

Admittedly, Kierkegaard had very good reasons to take his daily walks.

Can exercise help you to solve any of your problems?

References

1. Colcombre et al.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2004;101(9):3316-21 

2. Erickson KI et al. Neurobiology of aging. 2014. 35:S20-28

3. Hansen A. Hjärnstark. 2016

4. Oppezzo M et al. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2014 40(4):1142-52.

5. Teixeira et al. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2012, 9:78

More to come

We are about to launch the full English version of the Swedish medical university initiative, PriusHealth, providing daily thought-provoking questions to unlock how you relate to yourself, to others, the larger us, as the way to improve your health.

Available both as an open website and a full guided program, it will be launched summer 2017. If you would like us to keep you informed of its launch and thereby get free access to more content, then click here.

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