Exercising our Daemons - exercising the body, boosting the brain

We all know that exercise is the key to a healthy body, but what about a healthy mind? There is mounting evidence that regular exercise can lift your mood, improve brain function and even slow neurological decline. Nobody understands this better than Fran Knight

Frances Knight, Daemon

Fran is a Daemon consultant, but IT isn’t her only area of expertise. With a 15 year career in psychology and neuroscience (UCL and University of Bristol), she has an in-depth knowledge of the human brain. Over the last few months, she’s been wowing Daemonites with a fascinating presentation about brain function and how we can harness the power of exercise to give our brains a boost and improve performance in the workplace.


Among other things, Fran’s presentation highlights the irrefutable neurological benefits of exercise. Here’s a summary of these findings, and how we’ve used them to build a happier, more productive workplace. 


Exercise is a win-win-win 


Whether you’re running double marathons or just going for a brisk walk, getting active has proven positive effects. Besides the obvious physical benefits, regular exercise can boost brain function in three major ways:


1. Lifting mood


You’ve probably heard of the ‘runner’s high’ - a feeling of euphoria experienced during exercise. This is no myth. In fact, there is a wealth of scientific evidence to back up the link between exercise and happiness:


  • Exercise releases dopamine and serotonin - two of the main neurotransmitters linked to happiness. Dopamine is the reward chemical responsible for feelings of achievement and satisfaction. It also helps with motivation, meaning that regular exercise can create a virtuous cycle of incentive and reward. Serotonin is the feel-good chemical. It produces feelings of happiness and optimism,  as well as improving sleep, appetite and general mood. The powerful combination of these two leads to a sense of pleasure upon completing the task, and motivation to do it again.
  • Exercise is also an effective stress reliever. It causes the release of norepinephrine, the brain’s version of adrenaline, which kicks in as part of the fight or flight response. Imagine seeing a lion in the wild and needing to respond quickly and decisively, with sharpened focus. While this is typically associated with high-stress situations, regular low-level exposure through exercise builds a resilience to the stress-response, helping us to cope better under pressure. 


These effects are well-documented. A recent study found that 75% of people who exercised regularly reported high levels of happiness, compared to just 25% who didn't. Another found that frequent exercise could reduce stress and anxiety by as much as 40%


2. Improving cognition


It’s no coincidence that people often report bursts of inspiration after exercise. Like any body part, the brain needs nutrients, glucose and oxygen to function. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, providing these substances in higher doses. Increased blood flow also activates the synapses, improving our performance on memory and concentration tasks. 


As well as giving us a short-term mental boost, exercise can improve our overall cognitive abilities. A strenuous workout releases growth hormones, and these can benefit the mind as much as the body. Fran explains how this process works:


“Strength exercises involve the repeated tearing and repairing of the muscles. The body releases growth hormones to aid these repairs, and this is why we’re able to grow our muscles through training. The same concept applies to the brain. Exercise releases brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), the brain’s very own growth hormone. This is released predominantly into the hippocampus - the part of the brain responsible for creating memories - and strengthens connections between neurons - the building blocks of the brain. Increasing BDNF levels allows us to do this more effectively, improving our ability to absorb and retain information.” 


Connect with Fran on LinkedIn


3. Preserving brain function


Exercise doesn’t just improve mental performance in the present. It can actually protect us against future cognitive decline. Studies have shown consistent links between exercise and better cognitive function later in life. These aren’t minor effects either. A 2016 study by the American Academy of Neurology found that moderate exercise in older people can slow the ageing of the brain by as much as ten years. As Fran explains, these findings are grounded in solid neuroscience:


“Different parts of the brain are responsible for different things, so the connections between these parts need to be in good working order. These connections weaken as we get older, but the growth hormone released during exercise can slow this process considerably by boosting those connections. It really is a case of use it or lose it.” 


A healthier culture


We’re passionate about creative thinking, and we’re keen to encourage anything that could help in this area. We first became aware of the power of exercise when we took part in an office-wide step challenge for charity. As well as raising money for a good cause, Daemonites resoundingly reported improvements in mood and concentration. 


Daemon has always had an eye on health and wellbeing. We have a dedicated wellness and wellbeing working party, tasked with promoting an active lifestyle at Daemon HQ. Over the last few months, the group has come up with a range of initiatives, including raising awareness of home blood pressure monitoring, posting daily motivational messages to mark World Happiness Week, starting a runners’ club and creating a Slack channel for exercise tips. Another step challenge is also in the works, but this time we’ll be joining forces with our environment group and turning it into a litter pick. 


We’re proud to be a health-conscious workplace, but we don’t want anyone to feel pressured. We’re mindful of the fact that some people are unable to exercise due to disability, while others simply don’t enjoy it. As Fran explains, it all comes down to personal choice:


“We try to promote the benefits of exercise, but we would never force it on anyone. It needs to be promoted in a non-intrusive way, accentuating the positives without sidelining those who don’t want to take part. This fits in perfectly with the Daemon vision. Whether it’s an IT system for a business or a health plan for an individual, it’s about finding what works for you.”


Design thinking: our fresh approach to problem solving


This is just one of the ways in which we promote a happy, healthy culture at Daemon. We believe that focusing on wellbeing gives us the edge when it comes to designing effective IT solutions. Why not give us a call and judge for yourself? 

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