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The Body and Mind Connection


TrainerMuch has been written about learning styles, multiple intelligences and other individual characteristics that affect our ability to learn. An awareness of these influences allows trainers to structure learning events to appeal to a wide variety of learners. But what about the physiological changes in our bodies which affect behaviour and, consequently, our ability to concentrate, learn and remember? Paula McMullan looks at how to minimise the negative effects and use the positive to the learner's advantage.

Every 24 hours, our body goes through a cycle of highs and lows, known as the circadian rhythm, which results from our bodies producing chemicals, upon exposure to daylight and darkness. This, in turn, regulates our immune system, hunger, thirst and other basic physical functions. We are therefore able to perform different tasks better at different times of the day depending on the time on our circadian clock.

A useful tip from a sports psychologist when I was preparing for the London triathlon was to train at the same time of day as the race. Since I was starting at 3pm, training in the early morning would not have prepared me as thoroughly as an afternoon session because my circadian clock would have been at an entirely different hour on the day of the race.

This analogy may be useful if you are coaching individuals or teams for a specific event, such as a presentation or a negotiation. If they know when they are due to “perform”, it may help them to practise at the same time of day.

A spoonful of sugar
Some of us struggle to get people to training sessions so how do we encourage participation? Bribery with a working lunch… And what is the most common ingredient? Processed white bread sandwiches.

This has a three-fold effect. Firstly, blood, which would be best taking oxygen to the brain to help it to concentrate by providing water and nutrients, is diverted to the stomach and liver. Secondly, a spike in insulin, which is secreted to deal with the sugar derived from your sandwich lunch, causes chemicals in your brain to turn into melatonin, the hormone that sends us to sleep. This induces a similar physical state to alcohol, dulling the senses and the ability to make thought connections. Thirdly, our circadian rhythm is on a downward curve from around midday until mid-afternoon so we are not in the best physical state to concentrate or remember, even if we do not feed our learners!

In the early afternoon, we should avoid covering new topics, or discussing those which require analysis or logic, concentrating instead on repetitive or mundane tasks. Tackle more taxing topics first thing in the morning or wait until later in the afternoon when it has been shown that people are at their most attentive.

Taking our delegates outside into daylight will help to reduce production of melatonin, making them more alert. Where possible, encourage delegates to eat food with a lower ranking on the glycemic index, such as wholegrain pasta, pulses, dairy products and protein. Avoid sweets in the training room, or cakes and biscuits during breaks. Beware also of soft drinks, which contain deceptively high levels of sugar.

Heating up
Research has shown that ambient temperature affects learning. The optimum temperature appears to be around 23C, but raising the temperature just a few degrees significantly decreases the ability to learn. The brain consistently monitors the body’s temperature - if it is too cold, the brain signals the body to cover up or, if it is too hot, to take off clothing or start sweating.

Minimise this distraction by ensuring that the room is as constant as possible around the recommended temperature. Our body temperature rises slightly throughout the day so aim to lower the room temperature by the end of the afternoon.

And exhale...
The Resuscitation Council (UK) recently changed the number of chest compressions to breaths in CPR from 15:2 to 30:2. The reason? It is more important to get rid of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the lungs than to introduce oxygen.

The same principle applies to a learning environment. The build-up of CO2 leads to drowsiness and headaches and impairs brain function, more than a lack of oxygen. Make sure that your training space therefore has adequate ventilation and keep monitoring the “stuffiness” of the room.

This is not the only answer to reducing CO2 levels. We talked above about CPR. Chest compressions move blood into the chest so that CO2 can be released through the lungs. If your delegates sit in one position for a period of time, what happens to their circulation?

We all know that physical movement is an element of accelerated learning, but it is not just important for the kinaesthetic learners amongst us. Of course, any form of physical activity must be undertaken with great care - ensure that you check whether any of your learners has a problem with moving around - but encouraging your delegates to move around (maybe create a simple obstacle course in the training room, walking around bins and throwing koosh balls, not hurdling over chairs...) will promote venal return (when the blood that has pooled in the lower part of the body due to inactivity is pumped back to the lungs to release CO2).

Don’t be a slouch!
How many times have you trained in a room with uncomfortable, rigid chairs, the same height, width, angle for everyone? While, as trainers, we have little to no control over the choice of furniture in our training environments, we can give our delegates the opportunity to move around and stretch, thus providing overworked muscles with a chance to rest.

Beneficial stretches focus on the hamstrings and hip flexors because the adaptive shortening of these muscles when people sit for long periods can pull the spine out of correct alignment and lead to low back pain. The brain may use up energy to block this pain from the conscious mind, energy which would otherwise be available for learning.

In addition, sitting forward to write notes or to use a keyboard will cause the muscles of the chest to shorten and press the abdominal organs up against the diaphragm. In this position, it is impossible to breathe deeply to take in sufficient oxygen and expel CO2. If your learners stretch their chest muscles and sit up with a neutral spine (not slouched, not ram-rod straight), this will help them to breathe more effectively and keep a clear head.

A note of caution
The extent to which you can use any of these tips will depend on the facilities available to you. If you are training at your own premises, it will be much easier to prepare in advance than training off-site, but a few additional questions to your client or to the venue will help you to plan your learning event. One last note of warning: be careful when encouraging your delegates to undertake physical activity that you do not include exercises you are not qualified to demonstrate. You may otherwise find that you are not covered by your insurance.

* Paula McMullan is a learning and development consultant with the McMullan Partnership (, which specialises in trainer development, wellbeing at work and business skills.


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