Episode 57: Exercise Is Fertiliser for Your Brain with Michael Ledzion

Inactivity is a problem for many professionals, and it only became bigger when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Frontliners can’t find time for exercise; some of us who used to be active can’t hit the gym because of lockdown restrictions. But now is not the time to put our health on the back burner. We must find a way to squeeze physical activity in our routine to reap the benefits of exercise for the brain.

Michael Ledzion joins us in this episode to discuss the cognitive benefits of exercising. We talk about how physical performance boosts mental performance. We also teach you how you can start making small changes in your routine that count in massive ways.

If you want to know how physical activity acts as a fertiliser for your brain, stay tuned to this episode.

Here are three reasons why you should listen to the full episode:

  1. What is the link between physical activity and cognitive performance?
  2. Learn how exercise improves our memory and creativity.
  3. Discover the most valuable exercise routine according to research.


Episode Highlights

[04:28] Introducing Michael

  • He has a social enterprise, Sports for Schools, where they arrange athletes to visit schools.
  • Through this, they inspire children to be resilient and engage in physical activity.
  • Michael used to run tech businesses in Cambridge in Southern California, but he wanted to do more exciting and meaningful work.
  • He got interested in physical activity after reading the book Spark by John Ratey.
  • He is in the process of writing a book to help teachers and parents understand physical activity.

[06:39] Making Exercise Fun for Kids

  • Most children don’t do enough physical activity. It’s not because they don’t want to do it but because we don’t give them space to do it.
  • As a result, their inactivity extends to adulthood.
  • One of his focuses is to make exercising fun and exciting.
  • To get your kids to exercise, he recommends inviting their friends along.
  • Listen to the full episode to discover studies about the benefits of physical activity for children!

[10:13] Why We Become More Productive When We Are Active

  • When you do physical activity, you produce brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
  • It is like having fertiliser for the brain because the growth factor grows cells.
  • A study in California found that children with high fitness levels do twice as better in their academic performance.
  • A University of Münster study found that people’s brains speed up by 20% after 20 minutes of physical activity. 
  • The benefits of fitness is cumulative. Because the brain is a network, exercise has a network effect.

[14:22] Exercise and Creativity

  • Being physically active helps you be more cognitive because we use the same circuits for thinking and moving.
  • Creativity is key to memory. When we connect our memories together, we add our imagination to it.
  • Memory strength is a function of repetition, intensity and a strong connection between neurons.
  • BDNF helps in connecting neurons together, which aids in your development and learning.

[17:28] Aerobic Fitness

  • Research suggests that aerobic fitness is the most valuable routine.
  • Aerobic fitness, or moderate to vigorous exercise, has the most significant effect on BDNF production, improving our brain function.
  • A study found that running in nature makes the brain processing speed 20% faster and gives us happy stimulation.

[22:08] Why We Don’t See the Importance of Physical Activity

  • Michael believes the school system has made a mess of physical education by having targets and exams.
  • Anything complicated and challenging stimulates more production of BDNF.
  • The focus on exams has resulted in a lack of education about the benefits of exercise for the brain.
  • The government guideline is an hour a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity, but actually, that should be the minimum requirement.

[26:27] Advice for People Who Work Long Hours

  • Build a routine, but do not take out what you feel your core work is.
  • Start small. There are lots of apps you can use.
  • Plan your week and block off time for exercise.
  • Delegate to free up time for exercise.

[33:56] Advice for Employees

  • If you want to perform better at your job, be more physically active.
  • Several studies show that physically fit people earn 20% more.

7 Powerful Quotes from This Episode

[05:45] ‘If you look at all the evidence and everything to do with exercise, it should be the first thing that you put in when you get too busy, not the first thing that goes’.

[09:26] ‘Children are much better judges of what they’re capable of doing than we are’.

[12:43] ‘What better invitation can you have than go do some exercise, get aerobically fit, and produce more BDNF and, frankly, do a lot better?’

[13:52] ‘Networks have a network effect, and the same sort of thing happens. It’s not properly been quantified and understood yet; the same sort of thing happens over time. So get fit, stay fit,and you actually increase those improvements’.

[16:00] ‘When you do learn stuff, what’s happening in your brain is not some sort of black box. It’s actually physical connections’. 

[25:08] ‘Just go have a 20-minute walk. It’s amazingly powerful. It has been shown to stimulate the brain to allow you to clear your mind’.

[27:40] ‘Inactivity kills more people or as many people actually about the same as smoking’.

About Michael

Michael Ledzion is a serial entrepreneur who has founded and run everything, from small, self-funded companies to a large US/UK tech start-up for which he raised over $50 million. He enjoys many of the gifts of ADHD and is grateful that his wife, children and friends seem to accept the downsides they might experience as a result.

His latest venture is a social enterprise that brings Olympic athletes into primary schools to inspire children to be more active and lead healthy lives. He has developed an interest in how physical activity builds the brain. As a result, he is currently researching a book aimed at teachers and parents to explain the crucial importance of being active to virtually all areas of children’s lives, not least being successful at school.

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Episode Transcript

Dr Rachel Morris: Welcome to another episode of You Are Not A Frog, fertiliser for your brain. 

Now, whether we’ve been working on the frontline or not, most of us have been sitting for even longer than usual and it’s getting harder and harder to stay active, fit, and well, particularly in the new lockdown and as the nights are getting darker earlier and earlier. 

Well in this podcast episode, I’m chatting with Michael Ledzion, who calls himself the sports debater. And Michael has set up an innovative organisation, which sends athletes into school to raise money, promote exercise and good health. We’re chatting about the fascinating effects of just small amounts of exercise on your brain. We talked about why it’s a key requirement for high performance and how to start making those small changes that count. You know that I’m a massive fan of being able to make small changes. 

So listen, if you want to find out just why being active is like fertiliser for your brain. Why we seem so often sick and neglect this vital performance booster? And why you might find yourself doing press ups at coffee time, if you work in Michael’s office. 

Welcome to another frog, the podcast for GPs, doctors, and other busy professionals in high stress jobs. Even before the coronavirus crisis, many of us were feeling stressed and one crisis away from not coping. We felt like frogs in boiling water—overwhelmed and exhausted. But this has crept up on us slowly so we hardly noticed the extra long days becoming the norm. And let’s face it, frogs generally only have two choices, stay and be boiled alive, or jump out of the pan and leave. But you are not a frog. And that’s where this podcast comes in. You have many more options than you think you do. It is possible to be master of your own destiny, and to craft your life so that you can thrive even in the most difficult of circumstances. 

I’m your host, Dr Rachel Morrison, GP, and executive coach, and specialist in resilience at work. I work with doctors and other organisations all over the country to help professionals and their teams beat stress and take control of their work. I’ll be talking to friends, colleagues, and experts—all who have an interesting take on this. So that together, we can take back control to survive and thrive in our work and lives. 

I’d like to give a big shout out to the GP fellows in Cambridge who attended my online Shapes Toolkit programme as part of their GP fellows training. And just to let you know that I’m now taking bookings for the autumn, spring, summer for my Shapes Toolkit programme. This is a breakthrough resilience training programme, which will help you and your team to increase your productivity, take control of your well-being, and your workload. And really empower yourself and other people to take control and design a life in which you can really thrive at work. We’ve been delivering this for various GP training hubs, and for GP fellow training schemes. 

We’ve also had people in the additional roles in primary care, such as paramedics, physios. We’ve had practice managers attend the course, nurse practitioners. Anybody who is in a high stress job and facing some of these issues, this course is suitable for. So if you are part of a PCN and STP Workforce Planning Committee, or you’d like to investigate some training for your GPs and primary care teams in the training hub, or health board, then to get in touch. And of course, this isn’t just for healthcare, we are also been providing courses for other high stress organisations. So I’d love to talk to you just get in touch with me to find out about how we can work with you and your organisation. 

I’m a GP myself, I know what it’s like to work in an environment where you feel overwhelmed and overloaded with work. And the Shapes Toolkit will help you take back control and thrive in your workplace. All our training can be delivered online. And it’s a really great way of holding a team away day, which encourages interaction, which gets really deep conversations between team members and just encourages people when they may be feeling a bit isolated at home. So here’s today’s episode. 

So it’s really great to have with me on the podcast today, Michael Ledzion. Now Michael is a self described chief Sportivater and I really wanted Michael to come on to talk about the power of exercise. Now, Michael is a tech entrepreneur, who now runs a social enterprise bringing Olympic athletes into schools. So Michael, just introduce yourself a little bit further for us.

Michael Ledzion: Yes, as you say, I’ve got a social enterprise. It’s called Sports for Schools. We arrange for athletes to visit schools and inspire children. They really talk about their experiences, about motivating kids to do more than they might otherwise do, their resilience. But also around physical activity and health. I used to run tech businesses in Cambridge, Southern California based. But I just wanted to get on with something more interesting. More sort of meaningful, shall I say not interesting. It’s a fascinating world, the tech world. 

And so I got into this and then I started getting interested in physical activity, and reading about it, I read a book by John Ratey, who wrote a book called Spark. And that really, literally sparked off my interest about five, six years ago. So yes, I’m in the process of writing a book aimed at teachers and parents to help them understand just how incredible this stuff is, physical activity. 

Dr Rachel: Yes, absolutely. I think the reason why I wanted to get you on the podcast, because whenever we meet up, we always end up talking about exercise and the power of exercise and how important it is and how pretty much most people don’t—you know, there’s some people that get a bit obsessed with it, and maybe do a little bit too much. But, it’s a struggle. 

And I think when we get really busy, and when we get really overworked, particularly us professionals, exercise is often the first thing that goes. When actually, if you look at all the evidence and everything to do with exercise, it should be the first thing that you put in when you get too busy. Not not the first thing that goes. Is that been your experience in your own life?

Michael: I completely—as you know, Rebecca, my wife, and she will—she knows what happens when I don’t take a bit of exercise every day. You know, that’s a test, isn’t it? But it is. And actually, we— I started talking about this with my team in the company. And actually one of them took it right on. And we’ve ended up that he had an alarm that goes off every two minutes. I say we’re not had because obviously we’re not together in the office alone. 

But every hour, you get, ‘peep peep’. And we’d all get handed 20 press ups, or something, you know. Not everybody felt strong enough to do press ups. And so he was something. And that carried on in various different ways. I started three or four years ago. And it’s a fabulous, simple way of just getting exercise into your daily life. The stats are very interesting. 

And so you’re not even Britain, maybe some people listening to this outside of the country, but over 80%, 85% of girls and about 80-ish percent of boys, this is in the five to 17 year old bracket, don’t do enough physical activity. And all that’s been asked in this, to do an hour moderate to vigorous activity today. And it’s not because they don’t want to do it. I’m often asked, ‘Have you ever met a seven year old who prefer to walk rather than run’? Well, I haven’t.  And it has been sad, really, because we’d be to ask them somewhere. But we just don’t provide the space for them to do that. And that sort of then extends into adulthood. And really it’s about— my focus actually is understanding one of the fixes is how to make it fun, how to make it exciting. You know, none of us want to have a chore, go out and go for a run, and it’s got to be something you look forward to.

Dr Rachel: Yes, is that how to make it fun for kids? Because my experience is that on the weekend, they’re all watching telly or playing the Xbox Live. And I’m saying, ‘Right, we’re going to go out and do something’. ‘Oh, Mom, you’re always on about getting inside and going for a walk’. And even my 10 year old it’s like, ‘I don’t want to go for a walk. I don’t want to go for a bike ride’. And it’s quite difficult working out actually what to do? 

Michael: Well, every family has a tricks. My trick is friends, get friends involved. ‘Are we going for a walk with your best mate and his parents’? ‘Oh, I’m fairly interested’. And actually, it’s the same process, isn’t it? You know, if we’re told, ‘Oh, you’re going to get together with some mates, and let’s go have some fun together’. You’re much more interested than if your parents are going to take you a walk. We still really enjoy our parents, if all of us do, but you know what I’m saying? 

And so different people also have different interests. And so you’ve got to listen to them. There’s actually some great come back to the study of the points about your kids watching—playing games and watching television and worse not watching television always looking at their iPad. 

Dr Rachel: Youtube, mainly. 

Michael: Youtube, yes, exactly. There’s some interesting studies actually in schools where—and elsewhere. When people—children are given a choice of being outdoors and playing and create their own games. Actually, over time they migrate to doing just that. And not spending time on the phone. The phone is an alternative because there’s nothing else to do. 

There’s a great case study in New Zealand of a school that really went… Well some people might say radical, I just think it’s going back to normal. They basically said, ‘You can do anything you want in the playground. So long as two rules or guides. You don’t intentionally hurt somebody else, or their property’. As you think about it, that’s all that’s necessary, isn’t it? Gotta have some fun. Sometimes they intentionally hurt anybody or intentionally, you know, do something to their property. Then actually, basically, you can get on your life. And children are much better judges of what they’re capable of doing than we are. They know what their limits are, because they’ve just learned a new skill yesterday. 

Well, this case study in New Zealand ended up—they didn’t tell the parents this. They just as a—teach everybody. They just said, ‘Well, we’re just going to apply these rules without telling anybody about them’. Six months later, the kids were climbing trees, they were skateboards out there, they invented they’re games. Their discoveries were as much that children are much, much better than vending games than parents are. And it was a happier, more productive and they think academically better at school. But it’s fair to say.

Dr Rachel: I mean, that’s pretty fascinating both in the region of playing together and just being creative, but also that productivity. So why is it that we are more productive if we are more active? 

Michael: This is a big chapter in the book I’m writing. So when you do physical activity, one of the things that happens is you produce a thing called BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor. I’m going to get a bit technical briefly. But it’s like having fertiliser for the brain. Growth factors, growth cells, this is brain-derived neurotrophic factor, growth factor. 

And it was recently—I say, recently in scientific terms, 20 or 30 years ago—they realised that this stuff grows brain cells. And actually, if you put a drop of this into a petri dish—so the scientist’s plastic glass dish—and put it, dropped it onto some brain cells, you can see the neuron sprout more dendrites. They grow, basically. And this stuff is like the fertiliser for the brain. And physical activities are a great way, one of the best ways of making this stuff. 

So there’s a huge linkage between brain cognitive performance and physical activity. How much? Well, that’s a big question. And what type is also a question. There’s some different ideas on that. But a good study in children who has done—actually quite a while back about 20 years ago—looked at over 100,000 children in California. And just compared their academic performance to their fitness levels. Now, if you’re in the bottom six of fitness levels, you might score, well, actually pretty differently. You would be in the bottom third academically, on Maths and English or numeracy and literacy. If you’re in the top six, then you would score in the top third. 

So you might think, ‘Well, it’s not too bad’, but is actually from—it’s twice as better in terms of the graph doesn’t mean twice the grade. But it does mean in Britain with our our GCSE A Levels and the normal curve, that you talk about the difference between a sort of D-ish type grade CD grade, and an A B type grade. And the two ends of that spectrum. And BDNF and the way the brain works is a big part of that. There’s behavioural things that happen. You have a much better, better balanced brain. And so dopamine is a big thing we talked about. And dopamine is happiness stimulation, gets produced in a nice balanced quantity. But BDNF, really, what better invitation can you have than, go do some exercise, get aerobically fit, and produce more BDNF and frankly, do a lot better? —

Dr Rachel: Yes. Is there any other way of growing BDNF, of getting BDNF presumably sitting on the sofa, watching Netflix, eating soda doesn’t produce BDNF.

Michael: It doesn’t really, really… Actually, I’ve got— there’s a lovely study, which I love to quote from the University of Münster. And they actually got people jogging on a treadmill. So I’ve got my slide deck, a picture of a German in his lederhosen and another bunch, you know, the couch potatoes. And what they found after 20 minutes of physical activity, that people’s brains speeds—they measure this in various different ways and I won’t bother you with the detail—was 20% faster. 

So now if you think about 20%, faster brain, I’m interested in schools. Well, the school days, roughly five hours sitting in class, let’s say. Yes, not always in class and so on. But 20% faster is basically [13:41 unintelligible] of school. It’s cumulative, that sort of thing. So you know, as you learn more, think about the brain as a network of connections. And we all know that, you know, networks have a network effect. And the same sort of thing happens—it’s not properly been quantified and understood yet—the same sort of thing happens over time. So get fit, stay fit, and you actually increase those improvements.

Dr Rachel: Yes, I guess network in brains, networks are really important for creativity, aren’t they? For making different connections between different bits of your brain. And, you know, being able to use all of your brain not just the bit that’s focusing on stuff as well. So is there any evidence about creativity and exercise, for example?

Michael: So I haven’t actually found any specific one on creativity and exercise. But your point about the brain networking is come back to physical activity. Actually, when you’re thinking about stuff, you’re actually leveraging some of those circuits that you created that were designed for physical movement. So actually, being physically able helps you to be more cognitive because you actually use those same circuits. It’s not as if one bit is for moving and another bit is for thinking, actually, you’re using both. And, you know, creativity is a key part of memory. 

So one of the ways we remember is by connecting to an existing memory, adding a bit of imagination to that. And that was the lead that creates the memory, if that makes sense. And actually there’s another another point here, since it’s all about memory. So memories are— often, teachers will drum stuff into you, or we try and rote learn stuff. Do something, you get better and better at it.

Well, memory strength is a function of repetition. But it’s also a function of intensity. So I don’t know, you’re working home today, I think. But if you’d gone out this morning and an [15:30 unintelligible] jumped out the front door to—did that happen this morning? 

Dr Rachel: No, but occasionally it does.

Michael: It does, right? So what are your children jumping out here. But if a real liner jumped at you, I can pretty much guarantee you to remember that the rest of your life. That’s an intense experience. And so playing with that, and that need to have a bit of imagination to create memories. And repetition, actually, is the way you create memories. 

So I’m going on here, but one of the things that really nailed it for me, how important this is, is that when you do learn stuff, what’s happening in your brain is not some sort of black box. It’s actually physical connections. So a memory is a connection between neurons. I mean, simplistic, you can say, well, one neuron connects to another, it is not as loads. And then when you strengthen that memory, that connection gets physically stronger, there’s a thing called myelin sheath, which is kind of around the axon, and that gets thicker and stronger. So if you’ve got plumbing—imagine you’ve got instead of a fine little tune, you’ve got something big, thick and steel, you know, and it gets bigger, that lasts longer. And it means you use it more often. And that is a memory. It’s a strong connection between neurons.

Dr Rachel: And so exercise helps with that because the BDNF, that’s a big factor in that sort of thing happening. Is that right?

Michael: Because it’s oiling it and actually the BDNF, it helps connect neurons together, you then have these things called neurotransmitters, which come at the synapse, which is where neurons connect together. And BDNF, not only helps that process, but it actually also stimulates production, new brain cells. And so you have a brain cell floating around waiting to connect, as it were, and then something happens and it connects. You got more of this ability to develop and to learn.

Dr Rachel: So that’s interesting. Does it have to be really vigorous exercise? Or could it just be moving—a friend of mine just bought a treadmill so that when her son’s watching telly, she could just walk, walk, and not massively fast. Actually, she’s doing something. Is that good enough?

Michael: Yes, exactly. So what is the perfect routine is what we’re after, isn’t it? I just didn’t just have the perfect Einstein brain. So the answer is that it appears from the research and I say appears because actually, this is an area of quite cutting edge research. That aerobic fitness is probably the most valuable and intense piece of exercise can have a short effect this incredibly short. And actually, what you want to do is have periods of aerobic exercise that build up your aerobic fitness. And that actually has the biggest effect on BDNF production. 

And they’ve tested this in mice, for example. Mice, they’re great for testing, we’re still allowed to do on mice that I do feel for the for mice. Where they put them in treadmills and measure their BDNF production and their ability to solve maze problems and stuff like that. 

So aerobic fitness is clearly valuable. Of course, when talking about young people, and all of us actually, you need some strength and conditioning as well and that is valuable. You need it for physical health, but actually for brain function, it’s absolutely clear that aerobic is valuable. So what does that mean? Moderate to vigorous. So moderate is you and I are going for a jog. And we’re having a chat. We’re just about to keep the chat going.

Dr Rachel: No, Michael, I’m not sure I can chat if I was jogging. Cycling, let’s see, cycling.

Michael: So you’re just about able to keep a conversation going. And of course, but it’s actually a great metric. Because if you’re a really good fit, then if you’re unfit, then actually that’s still the level, which is moderate exercise for you, gradually, you’ll pick it up. Vigorous is, just can’t quite keep the conversation going. You’re just puffing too much, your heart rate is up too much, and, and so on. So they also want moderate to vigorous exercise. 

Interestingly, though, if you’re talking about things that help you in developing better cognitive function, there’s another wonderful study of where they looked at people running in town and running in the country through a forest, in fact, there’s 35 minutes in both cases. What they found is that brain processing speed is 20% faster, for those that ran through a forest. That’s interesting, isn’t it? And then if you start thinking about it. It’s like—brain in some ways—think of it as a muscle, maybe we don’t think it’s not a muscle clearly, but as an analogy. 

If you use your muscles, they work better. Well, if you use your brain, it works better. If you’re in a forest, there’s a lot more stimulation and your brain without you realising it, the limbic brain, your more base brain is looking around at all those leaves, then moving and watching for animals. And it’s really stimulating environment. Whereas you’re running through town. Well, it’s a straight wall and corner, flat pavement. Whereas in the forest, you know, you got to [20:21 unintelligible] drop your foot. And so brain is getting really happy, happy stimulating workout.

Dr Rachel: Oh, and I guess there’s that thing about being in greenery, in nature as well, which is really good for our mental health, too. So you can hit all those birds with one stone. I read recently that if you take your age away from hundred and 80, that’s your sort of moderately aerobic heart rate. Is that right? So that would be… So I’m 45. It’d be 135, which sounds about right, actually, to me.

Michael: Is it 180 or 220?

Dr Rachel: Oh it might be 220. Oh, my word. If it’s 220, I’m in trouble.

Michael: Remember, that’s your peak. That’s also the the max.

Dr Rachel: Now this is for the aerobic heart rate.

Michael: Right? So probably it’s 180, if aerobic? That’s right. Yes, the max level.

Dr Rachel: Some people wear those heart rate monitors to keep them in that thing. So I think whatever you do, that’s just the nice thing, whether you’re out of breath, and so you can’t talk or whether you could actually carry on a good conversation. And that’s important to know. So why are we so bad at getting enough? If it’s so valuable, why didn’t we value it so much? 

We were laughing the other day. I was giving the example of because of COVID, it’s obviously more difficult to exercise because we can’t necessarily do everything that we could do before. But I took my daughter to school on her bike, and we were told off for coming to school on the bike because there wasn’t enough room to socially distance for lots and lots of kids around the bike rack. And I was really shocked because I thought, ‘Comes up, one thing that we’re doing is getting out, getting some exercise twice a day to and from school. So why is it that our teachers aren’t really on top of this’? And why is it that us—I think even as GPS, we’re not really on top of it for ourselves. We might tell our patients to do it, but we don’t necessarily follow it ourselves. Why do we not really get the importance of this?

Michael: Well, you can have lots of conspiracy theories, you could have all sorts of thoughts on that subject. I think, in the school system, and I work in, we have made a mess of it by having targets and exams. And so there is a lot of evidence that if you have an exam, then people will teach the exam. And actually, I don’t think we want that. 

The history of education, interestingly, in this country started out with the desire for people to read the Bible. So we started teach them English about 200 years ago, beginning of the Industrial Revolution, bit more control needed there of our population. So let’s just teach them how to read the Bible. And then there was Industrial Revolution. And then they wanted a bit more than that. So they added maths into the into the mixture. And then he wanted more more so—but it was all driven by massive, getting lots of people into a classroom to teach them enough, so they could just do the manufacturing job. 

And unfortunately, we’re kind of stuck with that DNA of how our education systems come about. And Ken Robinson sadly died recently, but he retaught about creativity, and how movement stimulates creativity. And it does. Actually you asked me earlier on and I will come back to that subject that you measure BDNF production. It’s much more stimulated by irregular music, by regular music. Yes? So anything which is complicated, which has been more challenging, stimulates more production of BDNF and, and gets your brain working. 

But I think what’s happened generally in the school system coming to us adults later, what’s happening in the school system is that the focus on exams has driven some of this. But also, actually, there’s a lack of education about this. Of course, every teacher wants to have a classroom full of bright engaged kids. It’s just not part of what is taught. And so when I go and give talks in schools, there’s a lot of incredible duality and excitement, because suddenly they think, ‘Well, gosh, there’s some tricks here we can really make use of’. In their case, of course, they have to teach the exam again. So it’s about getting a better exam results. But nonetheless, it’s a step in the right direction.

Dr Rachel: But then giving kids more exercise, it’s gonna get them better exam results. It’s win-win. 

Michael: Absolutely. And actually, behaviour in class is better. The events we run with Olympic athletes involve fitness circuits. I remember one teacher saying to me that, ‘You know, after they came in, we’re doing maths. And then we came back and did the math. We’re halfway through a lesson and what is very interesting for 20 minutes afterwards, they were really focused. We have the best masters we ever had. So I was interested by that. Why do you think that might be’? And that illustrates that it’s just not known, you know. It’s not something you’ve known about, we’ve been taught about.

And, you know, the government guideline is an hour a day of physical activity for children, moderate to vigorous, but actually, that’s the minimum. If you think about how we grew up in the savanna, tens of thousands of years ago, we were jogging all the time. So which brings us on to [25:05 unintelligible], a walk. Just go and have a 20 minute walk. It’s amazingly powerful. It has been shown to stimulate the brain to allow you to clear your mind. It’s extraordinarily powerful. And so start with that.

Dr Rachel: Yes, I’ve noticed the power of that yesterday. I did a three and a half hour at training of—I was delivering online. And then I had a call and I said, ‘Actually, can we do a quick phone call rather. It seems I just need to walk’. I felt so much better when I sort of walked a couple of laps around the lake. It’s amazing how it just completely changes your mindset. And I guess there’s a lot of research out there about when you’re focusing on something your brain is in focus mode, where your brainwaves are very linear and stuff. But then as soon as you stop that, and go and make a cup of tea or do something else, or take a walk, your brain goes into the diffuse mode. So you are naturally creating, being creative and solving problems and everything like that. 

So it’s really good for productivity, it’s good for creativity, but how do we get people to engage with this. I’m thinking of GPs who get to the surgery, 7:30 in the morning, and then they don’t leave till maybe six or seven. Probably the earliest they have to get home, feed the family, whatever, get kids to bed, and then often they’re diving in to finish off their work. How on earth, can they—because the best one in the world, they’re not going to go be able to go to the gym for an hour or two or anything like that you know, what advice would you give to people in that sort of situation?

Michael: Well for me, it’s been about building into a routine, but not taking it out of what you feel your core work is. And so, in fact, when we do these training courses in schools, one of the things that often comes up is, ‘Well just parked my car a couple of miles away from the school’. Yes, there are things you can do really simply, which just gives you that opportunity. 

For me, I’m fortunate that we live in Cambridge, everybody cycles in Cambridge. My cycle route in Cambridge takes me over our local hill, which to most people it wouldn’t be noticed, but we think of it as a hill. But it gives me enough to get up to some decent heart rate. And it clears my head on my return journey. I exercised 20 minutes, fabulous. And that’s all that’s needed to have a huge effect. 

The World Health Organization did a study, and they showed that just two and a half hours a week of physical activity, which is not very much for us adults, that was 20 minutes a day they will not—it just can really stave off the illnesses associated with lack of activity. So your listeners may or may not know this, but inactivity kills more people, or as many people actually about the same as smoking. It’s a pretty interesting statistic, when you think about it. Sitting on that couch is the same as having a cigarette. That is that bad. So we were using the shock technique here to try and get people out. 

But in practical terms, I think it’s about building into a routine. And starting a very small, yes, just a walk and then maybe a bit more. There are lots of apps you can use. I find for myself a ball and for children is a ball—needs to be chasing a ball. It’s amazing where you go chasing and chasing a ball. I feel GP listeners, tough one because they do work extremely long hours. I would challenge people to say why do you have to work as long as you know. A lot of GPS are beginning to work to balancing their work and home lives by just working shorter hours. I’ve been fortunate—I’ve made a conscious decision in my life to make sure I live near work so I can cycle to work. 

So I actually moved and or not sought jobs which requires to travel to and from work. It’s a problem at home. We’ve now living at home and working at home. And so that is, Zoom fatigue is happening. It’s exhausting spending all day in front of the screen. You actually have to get out for a walk. I just say go for a walk.

Dr Rachel: I think—it’s a couple of really interesting things in that. I think. Firstly, it’s about planning it into your day. And I think with GPs, you know, just work less, that’s tricky. But actually I have a—think of a Thrive Week Planner and I’ll put the link in the show notes, where it’s basically a plan of your whole week. And what I get people to do when I’m coaching them is to put down all the work they’re doing in the week, you know, don’t skimp. Say exactly how much admin work, what time you get into work, when you’re doing it, so you can actually see a screenshot of your week. 

And then work out—well most people look at it and go, ‘Oh my word I’m doing far too much’. Work out what you can eliminate because most GPs are doing far too much. They’ve got too many roles and they just think that they can squash 25 hours into a 24 hour day which just isn’t possible. But then you need to actually, ‘When is it am I going to do my exercise’? And block it off and plan it and be very, very intentional about it. And I think a lot of us are a little bit martyrs, we go, ‘I just have to work all the way through lunch. I can’t possibly even take a 20 minute break to go for walk’. Actually, you can, you need to plan it, you need to make a few changes that you can. I think you do make the time for the things that you really, really want to do. And I think exercise is so important. That is a little bit tough if you’re not planning exercise. 

In my way, exercises is the first thing that I plan in because I know it’s really important to me. —

Michael: I found something that works very well is as a GP, you are a partner practice. But if you start requiring this of your team, your admin team, your nurses and others, then it becomes a default. And so I’ve— in my companies and this [30:39 unintelligible] I work with, we have insisted that people take an hour’s lunch break. I know that I’ve got this pressure to, ‘Oh, this is not a quality finish’, but actually it has been fantastic. We set that out right from the start. And the result is that people do take it, there is a gym nearby. It’s fantastic. They go off. And sometimes frankly, they come back a bit late. But I didn’t mind because they’ve done exercise. And I know they can be hugely productive. And once you do that for others, if you delegate the way, because I know that as leaders, particularly GPs who have are bright people, you think a problem and therefore you think it’s done. And then you find yourself spending the next few hours doing it—was actually the interesting bit was thinking it. And but you actually have to do and that takes up the hours is delegate a lot of things that—as leaders, we can delegate, and people love it. People love being delegated to.

Dr Rachel: I think it’s hard though, we do teach delegation on the lead managed THRIVE course. And we always say to people that if you are a GP or practice manager, you’ve got a lawyer or an accountant and you are doing something that someone else in your organisation who’s paid less than you perhaps or less senior than you could do, you’re wasting money for the organisation because you’ll you’ll pay for your time. 

And so delegation is so important. People feel guilty about it actually—as someone who has been delegated to, when someone delegates—when I was working at the university they delegated to me looking at and setting up a course that someone else could have done but I was so glad. They gave me opportunity. It gave me—a for growth, it’s how I got into the whole resilience and leadership thing, because someone trusted me enough to delegate something to but because they didn’t take it on themselves and think they ought to do it. And they should do it. So I think delegation is a massive way of freeing up time. 

I guess the counter to that is you have to have, you actually have to have the people there that you can delegate to. But I think sometimes again, it’s actually a lack of focus on what we’ve got to delegate and a lack of time to do delegation and a lack of people, sometimes…

Michael: My other motto is, I always want to make sure—if I’ve got 10 people on my team, but they’re all productive before I do anything. And the reason for that is 10 people is 10 times the amount of work. If they’re productive, then I can start looking at myself and being productive, but actually help them get productive first. Make sure they’ve got jobs that stimulate and excite them and they are really busy on. And then if there’s anything left, you can pick that up.

Dr Rachel: Yes. Yes. And of course, in all offense be productive. You know, they need to be looking after themselves. And they need to be, you know, doing excellent. And I guess as an employer, if you were looking at your team, and there was someone that obviously wasn’t looking after themselves, and you knew they weren’t being active at all what, you know, would he be? I guess she—he comes, performance manager, someone, because they’re not exercising and that, you know, that’s completely unreasonable. But you know, I guess, if you had, I’m talking about this with Caroline Walker the other day that, the joyful thoughts from another podcast episode, he would never look at a professional footballer and say, ‘Don’t worry, it’s okay not to train. And it’s okay not to eat well, and keep yourself well hydrated’. If that’s fine, you just do what you want, because you’re paying them for their physical fitness. But then, in work, we’re paying people for their performance aren’t we?

Michael: Well, the answer to that one is, in many ways, does that person want to progress? If they’re doing an adequate job at the moment, that’s great. But if they want to progress, they might want to think about being more physically active. All illnesses essentially require the body to act and and fight them, whether they’re obesity, hypertension, whatever they are. And so when you’re fit, you haven’t—you’ve got all that energy released to feel good. I think we’ve all can remember a moment when we felt sharp. And think back to that moment, I’d say and think what was going on then and try and recreate it. If this will bounce around. It’s not that helpful in reality. What’s more helpful is, picture of what you want to do and how you want to be. 

And you check into my work, there’s loads of studies that looked at physical fitness and how much money you earn. And that’s obviously interesting. Isn’t it? So yes, it’s roughly 20% various—20% more money, yes. Yes, you’re gonna you’re gonna earn 20% more.

Dr Rachel: Yes, I think I can imagine there are some people listening to this podcast. ‘Yes, but I have health problems. And, you know, I may have obesity because of some stuff that’s gone on. And you know, it’s really difficult’. So I think what we’re not saying is you need to be peak physical performance, but just you know, there are ways no matter what size, shape, what are the health conditions you’ve got of being just that little bit more active, and that will benefit you,

Whatever. Would you agree with that? 

Michael: Completely. And these—again, we’ll come back to talks we were giving at schools, at the end of it, we give them, we say to them, ‘We want you to start something tomorrow, which is tiny, which is just one step in a direction. You’re not going to change overnight. You’ve got to change the whole belief system. You got to change how you feel. You got to get that feedback loop going’. Just do one or two, actually we say two little things. One starts tomorrow. Now might be park the car, in a motorway, or even just half a mile away. And the second one starts in two weeks time. It’s a bit more substantial. And we measure to get people to have this sort of, they are responsible to each other for doing it. Accountable to each other, we pair them up. And that just little step in the right direction gives you a confidence that you can you can go forward. Yes, a small step. Just a small step.

Dr Rachel: Yes, I think absolutely—so I think that’s what puts people off being active is, you know, ‘I really hate going to the gym three times a week’. Yeah, absolutely. Don’t do it. You know, but if you like walking the dog around the park, just maybe go slightly, slightly further, or do it a bit more often, it’s doing something you enjoy. I think doing it with friends, like you said, and we took up all about this in our Shapes Toolkit courses, you know. What are the barriers to doing—if it’s because you get home at eight o’clock at night, and you still got loads of weights, of course, you’re not going to get off the couch and go  and do some exercise. You know, half an hour or something in your lunch break or something. What it’s the art of the possible and it’s the small, small changes, like you said. And also not to beat yourself up about that, if it’s really difficult, because that also can just paralyze people in making changes to concepts.

Michael: And that’s obsessive—it becomes obsessive, doesn’t it? Dog walkers live an average of one and a half years longer than non dog walk dog owners. Okay, next a year and a half of your life.

Dr Rachel: My kids are on this mission for us to get a dog. And I’d say, ‘Absolutely not’. We’ve got two cats, the cats will chase the dog away. 

Michael: It’s interesting how lockdown has driven up the number of people who want—bought pet, pet prices shot up. I think there’s intrinsic need and desire for us to have this experience of nature being outdoors, wild animals and so on. It’s a good thing and it’s just—that one little step.

Dr Rachel: Yes. Don’t wait for the excuse. Don’t wait for your dog. Just maybe say to your partner, ‘I’m gonna go walk the dog’, be like, ‘What dog’? ‘That metaphorical dog. It’s fine. It’s my mental well being and for my physical well being and everything like that’. So, yes.

Michael: It’s so interesting when you walk or you start doing this other thing, I’ve done it a little bit of various times. You start discovering a local neighborhood. And that’s a very interesting thing to do. It’s got all sorts of things and chat to people and social.

Dr Rachel: Yes, there’s a whole other world of dog walking, isn’t there. So it gets people in the house—it’s really good, really good, particularly for people to get them moving. 

So Mike, I’m afraid we’re out of time. But I think we could talk for another couple of hours about exercise being important. So we’ll have to get you back on the podcast another time. And if people wanted to contact you, find out more about this fantastic, that social enterprise about getting Olympic athletes into schools to get people, kids motivated and teachers motivated. And and of course, it earns a bit of money for the school as well, doesn’t it? 

Michael: Yes. So what we do is we run an event which raises money for the school. Actually, in the last four years, we’ve—sorry six years—we’ve raised over 4 million pounds for schools. And so—and the idea that spent on being more physically active. I would love to hear if anybody who wants to talk to me. And so the best email address, well you’ll probably put in podcast is, if you go to sportsforschools.org, sports F-O-R schools.org. And just michael@sportsforschools.org, you will find me. Love to hear from you, especially if you’ve got comments or thoughts on this discussion. And what’s worked for you what hasn’t worked for you? It’s equally important to know what doesn’t work as what does work. 

Dr Rachel: Yes, absolutely. Brilliant. Well, thank you so much. And we’ll speak again soon.

Michael: Thank you. 

Dr Rachel: Bye.

Thanks for listening. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, then please share it with your friends and colleagues. Please subscribe to my You’re Not A Frog email list and subscribe to the podcast. And if you have enjoyed it then please leave me a rating wherever you listen to your podcasts. So keep well everyone. You’re doing a great job. You got this

Download our Stop Start Continue Checklist Toolkit

Podcast links

Michael Ledzion’s LinkedIn

Get Active program by Sports for Schools


Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John Ratey

THRIVE Weekly Planner

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Here’s to surviving and thriving inside and outside our work!


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Rachel talks with Beccie D'Cunha about the conversations that we avoid and the conversations we really need to have with our colleagues, teams and managers. They can be described as difficult conversations, but we can redefine them as courageous conversations - because ultimately it takes courage for both parties to listen and be heard.

Episode 46 – Default to happy

Rachel talks with Dr Giles P Croft about his take on how to beat stress and burnout. Giles  is a psychology graduate and former NHS surgeon who stepped aside from clinical practice for a decade to explore a number of career paths, including health informatics, cycling journalism, public speaking and high street retail with his wife.

Episode 45 – Rest. The final frontier

Rachel is joined by Sheela Hobden, Professional Certified Coach, wellbeing expert and fellow Shapes Toolkit facilitator. We talk about why rest isn’t just important for wellbeing, but important for productivity and creativity too. 

Episode 40 – Leading with tough love with Gary Hughes

In this episode, Rachel is joined by Gary Hughes, author of the book Leadership in Practice, blogger, educator and facilitator who is a Practice Manager by day. We chat about how leadership in the COVID-19 crisis has had to adapt, and the different roles that a leader has had to take.

Episode 37 – How to manage conflict during COVID with Jane Gunn

Rachel is thrilled to welcome back Jane Gunn – lawyer, mediator and expert in conflict resolution who has been known as the Corporate Peacemaker. This episode is for you if the thought of addressing a difficult issue with one of your colleagues send you running for the hills…

Episode 20 – A creative solution to stress with Ruth Cocksedge

In this episode, Rachel is joined by Ruth Cocksedge a Practitioner Psychologist who started her career as a mental health nurse. She practices in Cambridge and has a particular interest in EMDR for PTSD and creative writing as a way to improve mental health and wellbeing.

Episode 11 – The magical art of reading sweary books

In this episode, Rachel is joined once again by Dr Liz O’Riordan, the ‘Breast Surgeon with Breast Cancer’, TEDx speaker, author, blogger, triathlete and all round superstar who has been nominated for ‘Woman of the Year’.

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