Simple lunchtime exercises to boost brain power

Our lunch break is precious. For one hour of the working day, we can switch off from any looming tasks, step away from the desk and hopefully enjoy some time to ourselves. 

While a stressful day may leave you wanting nothing more than to lie still in a dark room, just 20 minutes of movement will make it much easier to power through the rest of the day.  

It’s normal to feel sleepy or sluggish later in the day – especially if you’ve eaten a carb-heavy lunch. This is because, to help with digestion, blood is pumped to our gut and away from the brain. Less blood to the brain means we feel less alert and awake, which can be made worse if our blood sugar drops too. 

For many of us, this slump is part of our body’s natural circadian rhythm, which can shift during the day, as well as before we go to sleep.

Melatonin – the hormone that helps us sleep – can rise during the day if we aren’t getting enough daylight, tricking our body into thinking it needs to wind down for sleep.

Sitting at a desk has the same effect. 

There are some other causes of the post-lunch slump, including being stressed, sleep-deprived or simply dehydrated. 

Eating fewer carbs and sugar for lunch, sleeping better, going for a walk and drinking more water can all help avoid the afternoon crash, but getting away from our desk for some exercise is really going to help with focus and concentration. 

Exercise is not just good for your mood and physical health, but it can help us beat brain fog, too. In fact, research has shown that exercise carries more oxygen to the brain, releases hormones that help brain cells grow and promotes neuroplasticity; the brain’s ability to grow.  

Another study from the University of British Columbia found that regular aerobic exercise, (that’s the kind that gets you sweating and makes your heart beat fast) improves memory.

This is ideal if you find it hard to keep up after lunch. 

So, if you can, try going for a quick jog, follow an Ashtanga yoga routine or take a quick spin class.

But not all exercise is created equal when it comes to its brain-boosting ability, so we asked a Pilates instructor for some simple lunch-time friendly tips. 

Get your heart pumping 

The key to effective lunchtime exercises is to choose something short and sweet, but that will get your heart rate going.

Half an hour of a mindful exercise like Pilates is ideal, since it can be aerobic, and has a bunch of scientifically proven benefits.   

‘Exercise boosts your energy levels and helps to combat fatigue. We often feel that it will have the opposite effect, but a short amount of exercise at lunchtime will boost the energy levels for the afternoon,’ says Helen O’Leary, a physio and Pilates instructor and director of London-based Complete Pilates. 

‘Although moving and stretching at the desk may help to relieve aches and pains, getting away from the desk and exercising for up to 45 minutes at lunch is better for boosting concentration in the afternoon,’ she adds, recommending getting out into nature to get the full de-stressing benefits of green spaces. 

Speaking of stress, Helen says that regular exercise is great for keeping you feeling more zen overall – but even short bursts of exercise can help you keep your blood pressure down in a short time.

‘If you are stressed at work getting outside and exercising at lunchtime can have the effect of reducing that acute stress and therefore allowing you to focus better in the afternoon,’ she adds. 

If you don’t have 45 minutes to spare, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing anything, as exercise can also boost your self-esteem and mood which, Helen O’Leary points out, is linked to confidence in the workplace.

If you feel good about yourself, you’re more likely to finish that difficult task. 

With all that said, what specific exercises should you try out? Helen recommends the following, which can be done anywhere. 

Side lunges

‘The side lunge will raise your heart rate, get your blood circulating and also challenges your balance, coordination and strength,’ she says.

‘From standing step one leg out to the side into a small lunge position. Push back off that leg into a standing position balancing on the other leg. Repeat stepping out on that side 15 times. Repeat on the other side 15 times.’

Half kneeling book opening

‘This movement is a great way to get your spine moving away from the desk position and bring your attention to the body rather than the laptop screen,’ explains Helen.

‘This is good as it helps to stimulate the brain when you take it off the “usual” and habitual movement pathways.

‘Kneel with your right leg in front of you and the right hand resting on the right knee.

‘Lift the left arm up in front and as you breathe out rotate the body to the left side bringing the arm back behind you. 

‘Resist the movement of the knee with the right hand so that the twist comes from the waist and spine. Take a breath in the stretch and then rotate back to the front 8 times then change sides and repeat.’

Scooter

‘We love this Pilates exercise in the studio and you can do it easily at home with no equipment,’ she continues.

‘It should raise the heart rate, challenge your leg strength as well as balance and coordination so that again the brain is stimulated.

‘To do this movement, stand and bend from the hips into a small squat.

‘Take the weight onto your left leg so that the right leg can slide back into a straight position at the knee and hip. 

‘Keep going on the same leg moving it in and back again. You can then add the arms moving as if you were running. Repeat 15 times on each leg.

‘Make sure you keep the mini squat position so that the legs are working hard.’

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