Saturday, March 16, 2013

Exercising Executive Function

After writing what I thought would be a bit of a throwaway blog post yesterday, I happened to stumble upon a post by Annie Murphy Paul entitled, "Improving Executive Function."

Paul writes about what is known as "executive function"--the mental skills that enable us to effectively organize our time, pay attention, deliberate and make reasoned choices.  They're the skills that help us to function as "executives" in our own lives; without them, we would dither and procrastinate, getting little or nothing done.

If you've just read the last sentence and wondered, "Where can I acquire these skills?  I dither and procrastinate like a pro and nothing ever gets done...", you're not alone.  As Paul points out, valuable as these skills are, figuring out how to instill them in ourselves or in others has proven to be a bit problematic.

Over the long term, children who are given consistent structure (rules or behavioral guidelines) and support (meaningful praise and mental stimulation), coupled with a sense of autonomy and self-determination, will develop strong executive function skills.

Short-term attempts to instill such skills, however, typically prove insufficient or problematic.  Computer programs designed to "exercise" the skills needed for executive function don't really work all that well--in most cases, people get so that they can ace the program, but they never really develop the ability to transfer the computer-simulated skills to real-life situations.

What I found interesting (and relevant to yesterday's post) is that, according to Paul, recent research has suggested that  regular aerobic exercise can help.

(I can hear people now: "Oh, THANKS.  Once again, I'm being told to exercise.  Great."  I know.  I hear you.  Why does it always seem to come down to that?  Why can't studies show that we should all sleep late and then have a bracing cup of coffee laced with caramel and chocolate, followed by six different kinds of pastry?) 

Exercise doesn't just keep you physically fit, it seems: it helps you develop (or maintain) mental fitness as well.  Regular aerobic exercise appears to help individuals at all ages maintain strong problem-solving skills and quick reaction times.

People who exercise are often more adept at task-switching and better able to pay attention.  They can often "hold multiple items in working memory," in contrast to those who do not indulge in regular exercise.

I'm no expert, so I can only observe and randomly speculate on the basis of my own experience.  To my mind, it makes sense that making sure you're getting the blood pumping and sending more oxygen to your brain on a regular basis can only be a good thing (provided you don't overstress your system, of course).  After I exercise, I not only feel terribly virtuous, I often feel a bit more focused and organized, and this typically translates into a willingness to get all kinds of small-scale tasks done and out of the way.

In short, it translates into the kind of behavior I described yesterday as part of "life's maintenance."

I also find that, if I'm going to make time to exercise, I have to manage my time and my work a bit more thoughtfully and effectively, particularly during busy periods of my life.  So, I find that I'm organizing and problem-solving and operating a bit more efficiently simply in anticipation of the actual exercise itself.

All of that said, I can't help but feel that, in my own case, it helps to come out of hibernation.  I tend to maintain a solid exercise regimen in spring, summer, and fall, and it always, always falls off during the dark and chilly months of winter.  I often feel that this is my most unproductive time: I feel sluggish, sleepy, disorganized, and, by the end of February, downright chubby.  I develop habits that would strike me as positively ridiculous on a sunny, breezy day in May.

And so, every year, right around the time of Spring Break, I give myself a late-winter talking-to and tell myself to "wake up!" and "cut the crap!" and "get moving!"  And then, daylight savings time kicks in and I get it in gear--and spend all kinds of time wondering, "What was so hard about that?"

Paul's article was interesting to me because it makes me feel a bit better about the short-term "damage" I worry that I do to myself every winter.  Perhaps it's not all that "damaging" in the long run, if it's regularly countered by three seasons of executive functioning efficiency.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."