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Fitness: The Best Investment You Can Make in the New Year

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Between the unprecedented discounts on gym memberships and resolutions for self-improvement, there are plenty of reasons to make fitness a priority in the New Year.

But one you may not have thought of is the impact that exercise can have on your career.

New studies suggest that exercise can affect the way your brain functions. Aerobic exercise in particular — even walking or jogging — can improve your ability to perform tasks specific to the workplace

Here are three ways that making fitness a priority can boost your efficiency and your long-term earning potential.

1. You’ll be more on top of your game

When we exercise, new brain cells are born in the hippocampus, the part of your brain where new memories are formed.

According to Dr. John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, when you work out, your brain releases a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which rewires memory circuits.

BDNF causes your brain cells to bind to one another, and the synapses — or connections between cells — become denser.

The result: our capacity to make connections literally improves.

We think better, are better apt at problem solving, and no matter what last-minute requests and changes come up, we are on top of it.

2. You’ll have more energy and stay focused for longer

Neuropsychologist Dr. Karen Postal notes that exercise directly stimulates the dorsolateral prefrontal cortices — the brain regions that are responsible for focus, concentration, organization, and planning.

After just a half hour of strenuous exercise — that means getting your heart rate to the aerobic zone — the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex works harder to resist distractions. This results in better performance and greater ability to maintain focus.

And the results are immediate.

An hour of vigorous exercise in the morning before work will help you while on the job. If you’re nervous about giving a big presentation or you have a busy day of back-to-back meetings, hit the gym first — you’ll stay calm, maintain a positive outlook, and execute your responsibilities with ease.

3. You’ll stay sharper as you age and be able to learn new skills later in life

A new study suggests that moderate levels of exercise may increase the brain’s flexibility and improve your ability to learn in old age.

Brain plasticity — the capability of the brain to change in response to experience — is fundamental for adaptability, learning, memory, development, and neural repair. Plasticity is maximal in early development, but its levels decline in adulthood.

As we approach middle age, the visual cortex — the part of the brain used to measure plasticity — loses the ability to “rewire” itself. This makes it more difficult to transition between mental tasks and to process new information with the same poise as we did in our 20s.

Brain scans show that when we are young, mental tasks like problem solving, decision-making, and other types of high-level thinking engage the visual cortex. By the time we enter middle age, we start having to call in reinforcements from other parts of the brain — using more energy and resources to complete the same tasks.

In a study that measured plasticity in response to exercising on a stationary bike, higher aerobic fitness correlated with improved cognitive function. In other words, the brains of older people who were aerobically fit required fewer resources to complete tasks than the brains of older people who are out of shape.

With the ability to work more efficiently and to pick up new skills later in life, you’ll be able to work better for longer — meaning, more money in the long term.

The cost of that gym membership doesn’t seem too bad now, does it?

Christina Garofalo is co-author of the blog Adventures in Frugal, where she writes about travel, food, finance, and more. Her writing has also appeared in Paste, First We Feast, Robb Report, and Art & Hustle. In her free time, you'll find her writing poetry and eating her way through Brooklyn, New York.

Posted on January 6, 2016.

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One Response to “Fitness: The Best Investment You Can Make in the New Year”

  1. Max says:

    Very informative article. I’d like to expand on your third point, that exercise pays increasing dividends as you age. Exercise helps stave off heart disease, diabetes, and other common middle-age diseases. Exercising when you’re younger sets a foundation of fitness and a habit of regular exercise that is even more important later in life. But, you don’t necessarily need a gym; a brisk walk or slow jog is free and gives you fresh air. Also would like to add some form of strength training as part of an overall exercise routine. Strength training decreases the likelihood of falls, helps prevent weight gain (since muscle burns calories faster than fat), and maintains your muscle tone so you can keep doing those aerobic exercises.

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