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Power Up Your Brain

Posted 10/19/2010 04:53 PM ET

Executives putting in long hours at work may have limited time to eat healthily and exercise regularly. Nonstop conference calls and grueling deadlines can leave a person feeling so stressed out, it's easier to grab potato chips and a diet soda than a balanced meal. Add the pressure of family life, and not much time is left to tend to yourself.

Better make the effort anyway, say experts. Moving your body reduces the risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer — and helps your thinking. "Exercise especially improves brain functions such as decision making, problem solving and trying to manage and organize complex information — all the things you need to do to be an executive," Dr. Toni Yancey, co-director of the UCLA Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Equity, told IBD. "It also has a positive effect on just about every organ system."

Yancey, who wrote "Instant Recess," and Dr. John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, share tips.

  1. Work out fast. Don't have time for the long jogs and triathlons you used to enjoy? Opt for something quicker. "The best exercise is short, but intense — about 30 seconds," Ratey said. He suggests running up the stairs as fast as possible or setting the treadmill for a 30-second, uphill speed walk, followed by a 3-mph walk for three minutes. Repeat four to eight times. Ask your cardiologist if you're healthy enough to start. Concentrated training produced the same results as traditional endurance training, according to studies published in the Journal of Physiology in 2006.

  1. Get on your feet. "When you stand, your brain functions 5%-7% better," said Ratey, author of "Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain," who has a psychiatric practice in Cambridge, Mass. "Your attention span, ability to focus and screen out distractions all improve."

He suggests standing while you work by using machines such as Steelcase's (SCS) Treadmill Workstation. They force you to walk at a steady pace while typing on your computer. You burn calories while energizing your brain.

Schedule movement at work. Enforce 10-minute exercise breaks through the day with music and moves based on dances and sports, Yancey says. Leading a group meeting or call? Tell everyone to pause and follow along. Extend your arms over your head in a "raise the roof" kind of move while marching in place. Or step forward and back while waving your forearms.

You might feel silly at first, but Yancey says it works. "Getting people active for brief intervals is fun, enhances productivity and helps them concentrate better and make fewer errors," she said.

  1. Have walking conferences. This works when you're meeting with just a few people and don't need your laptop. "People sitting in meetings aren't productive all the time," Yancey said. "They're texting, daydreaming. Walking energizes and stimulates thinking."

Relocate parking spaces. Have able-bodied employees park their cars five to 10 minutes away from the office, and force them to walk. The Sprint (S) plant in Overland Park, Kan., does this. "The result is the same as a brief bout of exercise, with the same documented benefits of morale and health," Yancey said.

Replace chairs. Yancey offers this idea: Swap able-bodied workers' chairs with big stability balls to strengthen core muscles and improve balance.