My teaching has included 1,500 talks, sermons, speeches, and Bible studies during my 37 years in ministry. Sometimes when I’ve spoken I’ve felt like I was in the zone. At other times I didn’t. Only in the last few years have I discovered perhaps the single greatest key that has helped keep my mind sharp during a talk and improve its effectiveness. What was it? Exercise. Specifically, exercise within two to three hours of my talk. Here’s what I’ve learned about the brain and exercise that has improved my speaking.
Scientists increasingly see exercise as a powerful way to keep your brain healthy. Neuroscientist Dr. John Ratey wrote an entire book on the subject called SPARK, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. He explains that exercise increases a key protein necessary for a healthy brain, BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor). Brain derived means that the brain makes it and neurotrophic implies that it helps make neurons (brain cells) strong. It’s considered the master molecule of learning (Ratey, p. 38) that he calls ‘Miracle-Gro for the brain.’
This brain fertilizer benefits the brain in many ways.
- It protects neurons from premature death.
- It improves their function.
- It enhances communication between them.
- It stimulates their growth (neurogenesis).
- It provides a key link between emotions and thoughts (Ratey, 2013, p 40).
In one study Dr. Ratey writes about neuroscientist Arthur Kramer who divided fifty-nine sedentary senior adults into two groups (p. 226). One group simply did stretching exercises for six months while the other group exercised for six months three times a week on a treadmill. MRI scans showed that their frontal and temporal lobes actually increased in volume, a surprising finding. And, their brains looked two to three years younger than the brains of the stretch only group.
Another study showed that even one 35-minute workout on a treadmill at 60-70% of maximum heart rate can improve our brain’s processing speed and cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is a term that describes your brain’s ability to shift its thinking and to create new ideas.
Dr. Ratey also studied students in a school system in the Chicago suburbs. The school began a before hours exercise program called Zero Hour P.E. Students who participated in the program improved their mood and their reading comprehension compared to students who didn’t participate. He directly attributed this improvement to exercise.
Although for years I’ve regularly exercised during the week, I usually didn’t do so on Sundays since I had to arrive at church early. However, when I learned about this insight, I began to exercise 20-30 minutes early each Sunday morning. I now ride a stationary recumbent bike to get my heart rate to 60-70% of its maximum. When I began my Sunday morning exercise routine, I quickly realized these benefits.
- I was less anxious about my message.
- My memory improved and I more easily recalled the sermon’s points as I spoke.
- I felt more physically energized than when I didn’t exercise.
- I was more relaxed around others.
- My overall mood was much better.
So, if you regularly preach or teach, consider exercising 20-30 minutes 2-3 hours prior to your teaching. I believe you’ll experience some of the same benefits I did.
What has helped improve your preaching/teaching?
- Do you have a Healthy Leader’s Brain? Take this quiz.
- How a Healthy Leader’s Brain Works
- When Pastors Lead from their Lizard Brain