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Exercise Your Way to Becoming a Smarter Lawyer

Sneakers on keyboard. Shutterstock.

(Photo: Shutterstock)


Yes, that’s right. Clinical research indicates that getting up from your desk for a vigorous workout improves brain functioning and productivity.

In March, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society met in San Francisco to present the latest research on the short-term and long-term effects of exercise on the brain. Clinical research now confirms what I’ve known for years. Exercise makes you both physically fit and mentally sharp.

Anecdotally, many of my clients tell me that working out improves their productivity. San Francisco lawyer Thomas Gaynor, co-leader of Nixon Peabody's M&A and corporate transactions team, credits regular exercise and proper nutrition with becoming “a more productive lawyer.”

Fat loss and muscle gain are still the biggest reasons clients come to me. This strategy makes sense, given humans are now the most overweight, sedentary and unhealthy in history. On top of that, lawyers struggle more than most occupations with depression, anxiety and stress.

But increases in brain power, mood and libido are the biggest reasons they keep exercising long after they achieve their aesthetic goals.

It's common for me to hear from my lawyer clients that, when they stop training consistently (at least two times/week with a mix of aerobic and high intensity exercise) because of demands at work, they are less able to tackle challenges. They say work tasks take longer and they generally are less productive.

Simply put, the lack of exercise and movement diminishes brain power. They stopped exercising because they "don't have time," but the lack of exercise actually makes work take longer. They are better served, then, by stepping away from work and getting in a quick workout to increase their brain power and output.

It's thought that a big reason behind this is BDNF and its role in neural plasticity. Think of BDNF (Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor) as Miracle-Gro for the brain. It has been clinically found that physical activity can increase BDNF in humans.

What kind of exercise has the biggest impact on brain function through increased BDNF? More research needs to be done, but clinical results show the greatest impact comes from high intensity. But aerobic (low and moderate intensity) still brings increases. This study reports:

  • Aerobic exercise caused a 32 percent increase in serum BDNF in adult human males, while serum BDNF decreased 13 percent in sedentary control subjects.
  • Vigorous intensity (80 percent heart rate reserve), long duration (40 minutes) exercise offered the greatest probability of a significant BDNF elevation.
  • Long duration exercise offered the greatest numerical benefits in terms of BDNF integral.
  • Neither intensity nor duration affected the mean elevation in BDNF amplitude caused by exercise.

Depending on a client's goals and abilities, I generally recommend a mix of high intensity and moderate intensity cardio to illicit the greatest brain gains. And when exercise is paired with other activities known to improve brain function (i.e., proper sleep, better nutrition such as eating more Omega 3s and mindfulness activities like meditation and diaphragmatic breathing) they become sexier, fitter and faster thinking lawyers.

So there you have it. Now get going!


Jonathan Jordan is a personal trainer, nutrition coach and corporate wellness consultant in San Francisco. Check out his blog JJ Fit 24/7.