Boosting Executive Brain Function for Better Leadership

The New York Times article How Exercise Can Boost Young Brains shared a new study, which found that regular exercise over one academic year improved the executive function, or the ability to impose order on one’s thinking, among eight- and nine-year-old students. Their concentration skills improved. They were also better able to switch between cognitive tasks. The benefits apply to other age groups as well. For example, Best, Nagmatsu, and Liu-Ambrose (2014) learned that executive function declined less among elderly women who exercise. Nouchi and colleagues (2014) established that executive function, episodic memory, working memory, reading abilities, attention, and processing speed improved after four weeks of combination training (aerobic, strength, and stretching) performed by 64 healthy older adults. Behrman and Ebmeir (2014) suggest that exercise may increase self-esteem, improve mood, and have a favorable effect on cognitive functioning later in life.

Last week, I blogged about the possible connection between exercise and leadership. Research has shown that cognitive skills are important, especially when one considers the need for creative problem-solving in today’s economic climate. David Day and colleagues (2014) conducted a review of the research over the past 25 years, and noted six skills that are germane to these demands. The cognitive skills include problem solving, planning and implementation, solution construction, solution evaluation, social judgment, and metacognitive processing (or self-monitoring one’s own cognitive processes). Leaders need to sharpen their cognitive skills to stay on top of the game.

Exercise is one of many paths to improve cognitive functioning (e.g., playing chess, recombinant growth hormone, antipsychotics, resveretrol, psychopharmacology, etc.). However, I was astounded when I started researching the question of how to improve cognition because physical activity was mentioned so frequently. Research connecting exercise and leadership is still exploratory, but studies connecting exercise and cognition are abundant enough to influence my personal decision to exercise. It is an inexpensive path to improved executive function and problem-solving skills.

References

Behrman, S., & Ebmeier, K. P. (2014). Can exercise prevent cognitive decline?. The Practitioner, 258(1767), 17-21.

Best, J. R., Nagamatsu, L. S., & Liu-Ambrose, T. (2014). Improvements to executive function during exercise training predict maintenance of physical activity over the following year. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8.

Day, D. V., Fleenor, J. W., Atwater, L. E., Sturm, R. E., & McKee, R. A. (2014). Advances in leader and leadership development: A review of 25years of research and theory. The Leadership Quarterly, 25(1), 63-82.

Nouchi, R., Taki, Y., Takeuchi, H., Sekiguchi, A., Hashizume, H., Nozawa, T., … & Kawashima, R. (2014). Four weeks of combination exercise training improved executive functions, episodic memory, and processing speed in healthy elderly people: evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Age, 36(2), 787-799.

Copyright © 2014 Carol R. Himelhoch. All rights reserved.

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