On Leadership: Be a Change Agent

“If we are to have magical bodies, we must have magical minds.” – Wayne W. Dyer

A change of scenery; a change of pace; a change of habit. These are time-tested paths to a better mood, a fresh perspective, even a change of heart. Now scientists are bringing to light many other ways that we can change our brains, our minds – and even change the most important aspects of our lives.

Not so long ago, experts thought the brain was like a machine. If something in the brain “broke,” it stopped functioning and couldn’t be fixed. But research and advances in imaging showed that the brain actually does change. For example, blind people learning to read Braille in a 1998 study showed growth in the part of their brain responsible for their reading fingertip. Researchers were able to see the evolution of this part of the brain, beginning with the “unmasking” of existing nerve connections, and later, structural changes to support the individual’s reading function.

In 2007, the eminent psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr. Norman Doidge wrote one of the first books in plain English about the mounting evidence that the brain can heal, change and grow stronger (or weaker). “The Brain that Changes Itself” is still one of my favorite books. It inspired my own personal and professional journey of discovery, including a software venture aimed at helping children with learning challenges “rewire” their brains and now, as CEO of 24 Hour Fitness, my effort to change the neural pathways formed by my past experiences and actions – and consciously work to form new ones that better support my new role.

Recent, groundbreaking discoveries show there are many ways to spark change in our brains, from movement to meditation, even to choosing the food we eat.

A New Way to Think about Your Best Self

What’s so exciting about all of these breakthroughs is that they point to the potential and power each of us has to change our brains and our lives, and not only through sheer force of will or determination. If the life you live shapes the brain you have, then you can choose what you eat, how you move and yes, how you think, to influence every aspect of your brain and its support system (your metabolic function and hormone levels).

Exercise is a direct pathway to changing your brain. The intensity of your workout produces chemicals that stimulate brain growth, and multi-directional movement requires you to focus and learn unfamiliar patterns. Ultimately, that leads to the formation of neurons and new neural pathways.

Even better, if you engage in exercise with a clear intention of how you want change to show up in your life, you’ll probably see change happen more quickly.

And by intention, I don’t mean to improve your physique; I’m referring to your intention to become a more confident professional, or a more energized parent, or a more ambitious gardener or world traveler.

Make that exercise challenging, and you’ll stay focused on your intended change as well. A challenging workout has the potential to create mental and physical feedback, which in turn can lead you to become completely absorbed in what you’re doing and achieve what’s known as “flow state.” There are many techniques for creating challenge and focus, in addition to strength and cardio exercise. Find a yoga practice that sounds right for you or read on to learn more about types of meditation you can even integrate into your workout, and the surprising benefits to your body and brain.

Now we want to know: Has changing your body changed your mind?

Photo credit: Thinkstock/iStock daizuoxin.