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Physical Health for Strong Critical Thinking Skills

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By Ginny Haddock, Faculty Member, Intelligence Studies, American Military University

*This article is part of In Public Safety’s November focus on physical health*

Physical health is a vital component for any person; however, it is particularly important for intelligence professionals. While the image of a field agent chasing down an intel lead may come to mind when thinking about the importance of physical health, it’s just as important for an analyst sitting at a desk to maintain a healthy body and lifestyle to enhance critical thinking skills.

Poor physical health, which includes high levels of stress, can impede accurate understanding and reasoning skills and thus impact accurate intelligence work. To be at peak performance, analysts need to maintain a healthy lifestyle, which includes a balanced diet, good sleep, and movement and exercise. Improving each of these components will boost your critical thinking abilities.

A Balanced Diet
physical health_eatingHealthy eating is crucial for optimal brain function. Generally, when you eat unhealthily or consume a lot of processed foods, your body needs to use more energy for digestion—energy it could be putting toward thinking. On the other hand, when you eat healthier, balanced foods that your body can more easily digest, it frees up energy to focus on thinking. There’s no need for the medical field to show us—we can all relate to the regrettable pasta lunch that resulted in a 2:00 slump!

Switching to a healthier, balanced eating plan can bring great improvement to your brain function and thus your effectiveness in your work. A study at the American Academy of Neurology shows that healthy eating actually reduces cognitive decline. Foods such as nuts, berries, green vegetables, and oily fish as well as lots of water to hydrate the brain have been shown to boost brain power.

A Good Night’s Sleep
Sleep is often viewed as a luxury for adults who tend to be overworked, overscheduled, and over-stressed. However, sleep is important for critical thinking on two levels. For one, a well-rested mind and body allow for better mental flow. Our brain and body are repairing themselves as we sleep. For the brain, that includes clearing out toxins and building connections. Without ample sleep time, this process is interrupted. Instead of starting with a clean slate each day, we augment the repair list each day by not getting a full night’s sleep.

A second component of sleep arises in our ability to receive insight into problems while sleeping. There are innumerable examples of individuals making discoveries or creating something artistic that developed while they were sleeping. For instance, William Blake developed a new engraving technique he “saw” in a dream and Dimitri Mendeleyev dreamed the image of the periodic table. A full night’s sleep gives you a better chance at having these insights as well as remembering them the next day.

Movement and Exercise
Notice the emphasis is on movement as well as exercise—there is a difference! Exercise is important for health and getting the recommended cardio workouts each week to keep one’s mind sharp. This study showed that exercise can fend off declines in brain function later in life while another study showed the more immediate impact of exercise on the brain.

For working adults, many times a problem arises during a high-stress periods when a person most needs exercise, but doesn’t often have time to do it. This is where movement comes in. Many kinds of movement can help enhance thinking skills:

  • Stretching
  • Fidgeting
  • Pacing
  • Even doodling or playing with something in your hands

Studies have shown that these activities can improve brain function. The good news is that all of these can be done in your office when time and space are limited and each (or a combination of several) can keep the juices flowing in those high-stress moments.

Things to Keep in Mind
Everyone is different! You may be able to get minimal sleep and have your thinking skills largely unaffected while for someone else, sleep could be the most important component of their physical health. Pacing may be the best way for you to release stress and get moving while twirling a pen may be the best thing for someone else. The keys are to experiment, listen to your body, and figure out what works best for you!

Healthy eating, sleeping, and movement and exercise are important for all individuals, but they are absolutely essential for professionals in the intelligence or public safety fields. When a crisis or event arises in which you have to push through with limited sleep, no exercise, and take-out meals, you will be better able to handle the situation if you maintain an overall healthy lifestyle.

Now is the time to make the changes and focus on eating better, exercising more, and getting a good night’s sleep. It could be the difference in making an accurate judgement at a critical moment or not.

Ginny HaddockAbout the Author: Ginny Haddock is an instructor in the Intelligence Studies program within the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. She earned a Master’s in Strategic Intelligence from the National Intelligence University. Ginny was an intelligence analyst with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for 11 years, working with intelligence, law enforcement, and military officials within the federal government as well as in state and local governments on both operational and strategic intelligence. Prior to working at DOJ, she worked for eight years in the financial sector.

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