We have heard countless times about how important physical fitness is for our profession. We are told that our fitness level correlates to being better prepared for the fight, helps us battle obesity, and reduces our risk for various physical maladies related to stress and the aging process. But nobody ever talks about how physical fitness helps our brains and enhances peak performance. Nobody mentions that physical fitness better prepares our brains for the important tasks necessary to perform our jobs and strengthens the various aspects of brain functioning that are critical for the peak performance we long for in our daily work. Well, guess what? It does.
LEOs work in a highly-stressful environment that requires considerable brain energy and power. We are tasked with functioning in a highly dynamic environment where we must maintain vigilant attention to our surroundings, adapt quickly to changes happening around us, make split second decisions under significant emotional stress, initiate a number of fine and gross motor skills, and be prepared to respond with force if necessary. Police work requires optimum performance from both a cognitive (thinking) and physical perspective. Thus, we must be able to think and move well in order to be successful in what we do. In order to maintain the highest level of functioning as this is concerned, our brains must be healthy and prepared for the challenge.
In order to understand how physical fitness correlates with a healthy brain prepared to deliver optimum performance in law enforcement, it is important we understand some basics as to brain functioning. Don’t worry… I will try and make this painless.
The basic nerve cells of the brain are called neurons. There are roughly one hundred billion of them in our brain. Their job is basically to do everything. They are responsible for how we feel, our movement, decision making, impulse control, etc. You name it, the neurons do it. These neurons operate both electrically and chemically. They communicate by firing and then releasing chemicals (neurotransmitters) to other brain cells across a space between the cells called a synapse. This release of chemicals is how the cells communicate with one another and carry out their basic tasks. Both the neuron and the neurotransmitters are specialized for a specific task and each has a role in the brain.
In order for these neurons and neurotransmitters to function successfully, they must be healthy. We must have a proper balance of neurochemicals and the structure of the neurons needs to be intact. The neuron itself needs to be healthy and strong, the space between neurons needs to be healthy, and the level of neurotransmitters needs to be appropriate to carry out their tasks. If this is not the case, we find limitations in a variety of functional areas that can negatively influence emotion, movement, attention, etc.
So, what in the world does this have to do with physical fitness or law enforcement? Well, actually… a whole lot. In order for us to operate at our optimum levels and maintain peak performance, we need our brains to be healthy and functioning well. Physical activity causes a number of things to happen in the brain that benefits the neurons; in terms of their health but also in terms of growth and regeneration as well. Not only does moving our bodies strengthen and help maintain the health of the neuron, but it also increases levels of neurotransmitters and proteins in the brain necessary for growth and regeneration of nerve cells.
In his book “SPARK; The New Science of Exercise and the Brain”, Dr. John Ratey describes physical activity as like a mix of Ritalin and Prozac. It helps increase our attention and focus, but also enhances mood, which subsequently impacts performance. The physical activity floods the brain with dopamine (a neurotransmitter related to focus and attention), but also boosts serotonin and norepinephrine (neurotransmitters related to mood) levels in order to lift mood and enhance our sense of well-being. It also helps as a buffer against stress and the challenges of daily life that tend to negatively impact our mood and energy level.
The next logical question that would follow is how much physical activity do I need to make all of these wonderful things happen in my brain? Well, you are going to love this answer. We need very little for these improvements to occur. While it is impossible to say for certain, the general trend of the research in this area finds that moderate levels of exercise are best. In fact, excessive exercise or that of long duration or high intensity can have negative effects on functioning. The general formula tends to be thirty to forty-five minutes of moderate intensity exercise a minimum of three times a week. An easy way to define “moderate level” is to think about exerted effort to the point of knowing you are working harder than sitting, but not so hard as to be panting like a dog. Another way to think of it is if you cannot have a conversation with someone while you are moving, you are working too hard.
This level and frequency of exercise tends to trouble some folks; especially those in law enforcement. We tend to be intense people and much like we were told in physical education as children, if it is not all out then it is not helping us. Well, nothing can be further from the truth. It is important to get away from the thinking that we must be practically dying during exercise for it to be meaningful. That is just simply not true. In fact, walking is one of the best exercises that can be done. Not only is it low-intensity and produces the positive impacts on the brain, but it also reduces our risk of injury and we tend to burn a higher percentage of fat per calorie at lower intensity levels than at higher intensity levels. So, it is sorta a two for one; you get the benefits on the brain but also burn a higher percentage of fat calories as well.
If I were to tell you a magic drug exists which has the effects on the brain mentioned above but also lowers stress levels, burns off the destructive chemicals produced from stress, improves our physical health, helps maintain a healthy weight, improves our mood, reverses many of the negative consequences of the aging process, helps men maintain testosterone levels, reduces the risk of some types of cancers, reduces the relapse rates of some types of cancers, and helps extend our life span, would you take it? What if I added the fact it does not cost a thing, anybody can do it, and there are no side-effects. What if I also told you it would enhance peak performance in your work as a LEO? Would you take it then? Well guess what….all of those things are true and physical activity is the magic drug. It kinda makes you wonder why we don’t see commercials about physical activity all the time instead of the different drugs that are marketed to us on television.
As human beings we are built to move for a reason. Our legs, arms, and torso are all connected to and controlled by the brain, but the brain depends upon their movement for its health as well. A sedentary lifestyle not only leads to a deterioration of the body, but deteriorates the brain and limits its ability to function in the most effective manner possible. It is not only an essential part of healthy human behavior, but a critical part of the peak performance in law enforcement we all strive to achieve. The best part is we don’t have to receive special training hours to do it or get permission from our Chief!
Dr. John Azar-Dickens is a forensic psychologist in private practice and a patrol officer with the Rome, Georgia Police Department. Azar-Dickens is a presenter for the Force Science Institute, where he provides seminars nationwide regarding behavioral science issues involved in use of force incidents. He is a Berry College instructor in forensic psychology, abnormal psychology, and performance enhancement. Dr. Azar-Dickens is also a two-time Ironman finisher and an avid marathon runner and triathlete.
Reference: Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Dr. John Ratey