Monday, 13 October 2008

Sudoku & Mental Agility

Kevin was huddled over his handheld computer at the restaurant. My wife and I were joining him and had picked up his wife Joanne on the way. As we approached the table, she said, “He’s probably doing Su-do-ku. He says it helps with his mentally agility.”

Kevin showed me how his computer let him enter the numbers one through nine into a grid so that each box, row and column had each number only once. It was an impressive system, letting him store possible answers in each cell until he decided the right one. If you haven’t tried Sudoku, it’s quite an intricate puzzle.

“I too have a Japanese way to stay mentally agile,” I said. “It even sounds a little like yours. It’s called Ai-ki-do.”

“Never heard of it. Can you get it on the Blackberry?”

If you haven’t heard of Aikido, here’s a comparison between it and Sudoku:

Logical Relationships2 dimensions3 dimensions
Language ProcessingNoneJapanese vocabulary
Mental ManipulationNumericalSpatial
Co-ordination Hand / Eye Fine MotorHand / Leg / Body / Eye Gross and Fine Motor
LevelsBeginner / Intermediate / Advanced5 beginner levels, 7 master levels

OK, Aikido is not really comparable to Sudoku. It’s a martial art like Judo or Jujitsu. Maybe it’s silly to compare a numerical puzzle to a martial art, but the point I want to make is that, as accountants, our ability to manipulate numbers is already well developed and maintained by our work. The area we typically ignore is physical fitness. And your mental agility is intimately connected to your physical well being.

Oh No, Not Another Fitness Lecture

Like many people who divide their time between deskwork and business travel, I am somewhat overweight and underfit. Some things I have tried and learned from:

  • Swimming – I joined the YMCA, which had the advantages of having a club in every city I travelled to, and always having at least one lane open for lengths. Swimming proved to be a great way to relax after a day of meetings. It has many fitness advantages, such as very low impact on knees and other joints, but it did not prove effective for weight loss.
  • Dieting Atkins taught me the value of a high protein breakfast and lunch. A friend taught me about an apple in the middle of the afternoon to ward off drowsiness. I have already written about visiting a nutritionist who helped me navigate fast food restaurants. But I take the point that changing your overall eating habits is more effective than going on and off diets.
  • Personal Trainers – The accountant in me objects to the cost and perceived luxury of a personal trainer. I thought that I could guide myself through the exercise machines in the gym by reading the directions, thank you very much. The reality is that a good trainer knows
    • How far to push you without hurting yourself
    • How to translate your goals into specific exercises
    • How to stretch out before and after exercise
    • Which muscles to target and when your body is overcompensating.

    The fact is that my weekly appointment with the trainer keeps me from making excuses not to go to the gym, something I am prone to do. I have reconciled myself to the cost by limiting sessions to one per week, but going at least one other time (as well as Aikido twice a week.)
  • Aikido – Somehow, the addition of martial arts to the above made the difference for me: I actually started losing weight. But Aikido is much more than just exercise. It really is a test of mental alertness as you struggle with the Japanese terms, try to emulate the instructor, learn the moves, repeat the exercises and strive to remember and apply what you’ve learned. The support is excellent. It feels like there is a room full of people working to help me stop tripping over myself. While martial arts are generally about one person attacking another, Aikido is based on the idea of self-defense and doing minimal damage to your opponent, a lesson the business world could definitely use! Another advantage that I, as a beginner, have experienced is the idea of staying relaxed even while you are being attacked, again a good lesson for business.
  • Fun – Working muscles and counting calories meet nobody’s definition of enjoyment. But finding an activity that my whole family can do together as well as being thrown by my 13 year old daughter do count as fun.

    In the end, I don’t want to knock Sudoku. It’s something you can do on the subway or while you’re waiting for someone in a restaurant. Just don’t forget that there’s a physical side to mental agility.


Dobes Vandermeer said...

This is something that is discussed in the book "Brain Rules" where he points out that exercise actually stimulates the brain and provides more oxygen. Basically, exercise improves physical AND mental agility!

Bill Kennedy, CA said...

Hi Dobes, Thanks for reading and leaving a comment! That sounds like a book I should pick up.