Why Parking Lots Are Good for your Brain

Let’s face it. We know we should be exercising more. But between work and childcare and paying bills and taking care of aging parents and attacking our endless inboxes and cleaning up dinner, how are we supposed to wedge it into our already too-tight schedules?

Parking lots. Yes, you read that right: parking lots.

You know that expression “If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain”? This applies to fitting exercise into a too-packed life as well. When life gets too busy to go to the gym, the gym must come to you. What does that gym look like? It’s the stairs you take instead of the elevator. It’s the slightly longer walk you take with the dog or during your lunch break. It’s the isometrics you can do at your desk while poring over endless spreadsheets. It’s the bike you ride to work instead of your car. It’s the 10-minute youtube video for abs and core you can do right there in your living room before taking a shower.

And yes, it’s the parking spot at the farthest end of the lot that you choose instead of parking next to the store, to give yourself a little further to walk. These “sneaky steps,” as we at Neurotrack call them, add up to actual brain-enhancing exercise.

The science is indisputable: cognitive decline can be significantly delayed through regular physical activity. In other words, if you want your mind to stay agile, you’re going to have to enlist the help of your body.

This does not mean you have to hire a private trainer or buy the latest sweat-wicking clothes at a fancy boutique. It means taking those first baby steps toward a new physically-active self so that eventually, five times a week, fifty-two weeks a year, you have committed yourself to a mere thirty minutes a day of any sort of physical activity, either all at once or in smaller chunks spread throughout the day.

Thirty minutes a day! Only five days a week! You probably waste more time than that scrolling through Facebook. Moreover, the thirty minutes do not have to be consecutive. Baby steps, cognition warriors, baby steps. You can take a walk in the morning and vacuum the rug at night. You can stretch for ten minutes before breakfast, go for a midday stroll during lunch, and pace the room after dinner while you’re talking on the phone to that friend who always goes on and on and on without allowing you a word in edgewise. If yoga’s your thing, do yoga. If Tai chi’s your bag, do that. Conduct a walking meeting with a colleague outside in the fresh air instead of inside an airless conference room. Spinning classes are fun, if you have the time and the means, but biking to work on a sunny day can be just as enjoyable if not more so.

And look: we get it. Starting an exercise routine can feel hard, insurmountable, but only if you look at it as an all-or-nothing game. The trick is to reframe it. It’s not all-or-nothing. It’s a few steps are better than none. So next time you have to go to the grocery store, park your car at the far end of the lot. You’ll be surprised how those extra steps add up.

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Editor’s note: This is the second in a 7-part series created by Neurotrack about maintaining your cognitive health and well-being. It’s Neurotrack’s way of marking World Alzheimer’s Month. The science is clear, the evidence unequivocal: the new habits you start today can make an enormous difference in the health of your brain of tomorrow. Next week we will discuss stress: its ill effects on cognitive health and how you can learn to mitigate it. Please check back here to learn more.

Deborah Copaken
Deborah Copaken

Deborah Copaken, Head Writer at Neurotrack, is also a New York Times bestselling author of The Red Book and Shutterbabe, among others. Her work appears regularly in The Atlantic as well as in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation, The Washington Post, and many others.