Whether you believe in New Year’s resolutions or not, the beginning of the year is a great opportunity to fire up your focus and take a genuine shot at your own version of greatness.
Those who will win the game in the new year understand that effort breeds reward. That focus and practice create genius.
If you seek to ignite your brain for health and peak performance, I have a suggestion and 19 reasons to consider it.
Take Up a Sport
Participation in a sport provides both physical and mental fitness benefits.
The brain is often described as being ‘like a muscle’ and just like our physical body, we can improve it. The health of the brain is as important as the health of the body — and changing it is often quicker and easier as well.
A number of studies point out the benefits of sports for concentration, focus, memory and other aspects of intelligence. But could a sport actually increase our intelligence and ward off age-related disease?
According to science, the answer is YES. Below are 19 reasons to take up a sport and start thinking on your feet!
IMPROVE YOUR MOOD. Want a burst of happiness? The runner’s high — that feeling of elation that follows intense activity — is real. Exercise increases levels of neurotransmitters that may sometimes be depleted and releases brain chemicals that make you feel happier and more relaxed. Hard physical activity makes you HAPPY!
ENHANCE YOUR CREATIVITY. Psychologists have confirmed that physical activity bolsters convergent thinking, which is the ability to come up with solutions to a problem, and divergent thinking, which involves conceiving open-ended, original ideas. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche offered this advice over a century ago:
“Sit as little as possible. Do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement — in which the muscles do not also revel.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
WARD OFF STRESS, ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION. Physical exercise has direct effects on the biology and psychology of depression. As we overcome a challenge, we release pent-up feelings of helplessness. Researchers found that people who participated in a sport were 25% less likely to develop an anxiety disorder over the next five years. Single sessions of activity raise feelings of energy that last for several hours and reduce the levels of stress hormones in our body. Long-term participation can significantly improve clinical anxiety and depression to a degree that rivals medication!
SLOW COGNITIVE DECLINE. Recent studies strengthen the belief that maintaining or improving fitness levels in old age protects the brain — even in people at high risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Maintaining physical fitness keeps blood flowing normally to brain tissue, which can reduce the risk of damage or deterioration. Older adults with poor fitness levels have more deterioration of white matter (the stuff that carries signals from one brain region to another) in their brains than older adults with better cardiorespiratory fitness. More compact white matter is linked to faster and more efficient nerve activity.
REINFORCE A GROWTH MINDSET. Having a growth mindset is associated with the belief that your abilities and outcomes are influenced by hard work (as opposed to natural talent). One athlete who used the growth mindset to overcome failure throughout his athletic career was Michael Jordan. Instead of viewing his so-called “failures” (such as being passed up during the first two draft picks in the NBA) as reasons to give up, he used them as motivators. Athletes who adopt this way of thinking are the ones that stand out from the rest. They persistently look for ways in which they can improve their game and work hard to correct mistakes or bad habits.
“I’ve missed more than nine thousand shots. I’ve lost almost three hundred games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot, and missed, and that is why I succeed.” — Michael Jordan
ENHANCE SOCIAL CONNECTIONS AND RELATIONSHIPS. Sports improve our physical fitness as well as our emotional fitness. Rather than promoting a ‘one versus all’ mentality, sports have a beneficial effect on building social skills and maintaining good interpersonal relationships. A strong association between individuals sharing similar goals gives us a sense of belonging, shared values and endeavors, and as such, influences psychological health.
IMPROVE SLEEP HABITS. Sport and other forms of physical activity improve the quality of sleep. It helps us fall asleep faster and deepens our sleep. Sleeping better can improve your mental outlook the next day and improve your mood. Just be careful not to engage in sports too late in the day. Evening practices within a few hours of bedtime may leave you too energized to sleep.
BOOST YOUR SELF-ESTEEM. The great thing about sports is that they’re a self-improving activity. Not only are we getting better, we’re also becoming aware of the fact that this is the case. As our skills increase through playing sports, our self-image improves as well. With renewed grit, we realize we can better ourselves without relying on anything external. This sense of mastery and control makes us more likely to succeed in tasks off the playing field as well as on it.
BUILD LEADERSHIP TRAITS. Team sports are breeding grounds for leadership traits. Studies reveal a correlation between sports participation and leadership qualities. Because of the opportunity to train, win, or lose together, people involved in sports are naturally more inclined to adopt a ‘team mindset’ in workplace and social situations. The team mindset leads to strong leadership qualities over time.
STRENGTHEN SELF-DISCIPLINE. Discipline is an essential foundation for any sport. It builds character and programs our mind to achieve great things. The possession of self-discipline enables us to choose and persevere with actions, thoughts and behavior, which lead to improvement and success. It also gives us the power and inner strength to overcome addictions, procrastination and laziness.
GET ACQUAINTED WITH SUFFERING. Through sports, we see that pain and suffering have purpose. Perception of the pain we experience has an impact on our ability to tolerate it. Controlling the messages we send to ourselves is key to sustaining intense effort. Instead of focusing on feeling miserable, connect the feeling of pain to getting stronger. Connect the feeling of pain to accomplishing goals. No one likes to do sprints at the end of practice, but afterward, the benefits become obvious!
IMPROVE INHIBITORY CONTROL. Evidence proves that athletes have superior inhibitory control. This is the ability to suppress undesired behaviors in response to stimuli, in order to select a more appropriate behavior consistent with achieving goals. Self-control is an important aspect of inhibitory control. For example, successfully suppressing the natural behavioral response to eat candy when one is craving it while dieting requires the use of inhibitory control.
ACCEPT CHALLENGE. The brain can improve itself by being challenged. The only way to be truly successful in sports is to go all-out and risk failure. With challenge, there is no fear of failure, but rather a profound desire to pursue our goals. Why accept a challenge? Because there is one emotion we never want to experience in life: regret. And there is one question we never want to ask ourselves: ‘I wonder what could have been?’ After a game, win or lose, we want to look back and be able to say that we ‘left it all out on the field.’ If we keep putting ourselves out there, the chances are high that we’ll find success sooner or later.
IMPROVE PROPRIOCEPTION. Proprioception (our sixth sense) is a complex series of muscle and nerve communications that tell your brain where your body is in space, which is critical for the control of movement, sense of self, and feeling good in our body. Playing a sport improves proprioception which in turn impacts intelligence. When a certain body part or movement is used repeatedly in a coordinated and mindful fashion, there are actual physical and observable changes in the part of the brain that controls that body part or movement. This is part of the reason why you get better at what you practice.
BE HUMBLED. Through sports, we discover that someone is always bigger, faster and more skilled than us. Every athlete experiences loss several times in their careers and from it, they come to understand and appreciate their limits. It’s important to not dwell on loss but instead learn to improve our performance and grow in character. Playing a sport is an education in the virtue of humility.
BOOST EXECUTIVE FUNCTION. Many competitive sports can improve executive function, which are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. The part of the brain that responds strongly to aerobic exercise is the hippocampus. Well-controlled experiments show that this brain structure grows as people get fitter. Since the hippocampus is at the core of the brain’s learning and memory systems, this finding partly explains the memory-boosting effects of improved cardiovascular fitness.
TASTE GLORY. Through sports, when we achieve a monumental win, not only do we capture a glimpse of glory but we develop a ‘can-do attitude’. Winning competitions inspires us to do more than is required and get motivated to take the next steps to achieve even bigger goals. This prepares us for a variety of situations in the future, when it is up to us to make the decision whether we want to be part of the crowd or recognized for going a step further.
IMPROVE NEURAL EFFICIENCY. Compared to non-athletes, expert athletes have less brain activation during resting states or performing cognitive/motor tasks. Neural efficiency is the idea that better performers use fewer neurons and show lower brain activation when working on a cognitive task than poorer performers do. This stability of performance suggests that they process emotion (less reaction to unpleasant stimuli) and mental stress in an adaptive and efficient manner.
ENHANCE VISUAL SELECTIVE ATTENTION. Among the most important to high-level performance in sports is the ability to identify something as important and focus on it. An example would be visually tracking the movement of a tennis ball so you can hit it. With age, we lose the ability to efficiently ignore distractions. However, it’s an essential in producing efficient, goal directed behavior and allows us to tune out unimportant details and focus on what really matters.
(BONUS) YOU’LL HAVE FUN!
Clearly, what you do with your body has an impact on your mental faculties. There is no shortage of reasons to find a sport to get involved in. Pick one and let your body do the rest!
If you’re in New York City, please consider visiting one of my favorite sport organizations:
- Boxing at Aerospace High Performance Center
- Table tennis at SPiN
- Tennis at Vanderbilt Tennis