What the Obamas, Tony Abbott and Richard Branson teach us about brain health

Michelle Barack Obama exercise brain health

Tony Abbott, Australia’s Prime Minister, turned to me on a beach in August last year and said “Are you running hard or soft?”

We happened to be crossing the starting line at the same time in a fun run along Sydney’s Northern Beaches.

I spent the next 13 km trying to come up with a more witty and erudite response than, “Ummmm, I dunno?”.

Mr Abbott, obviously spurred on by my brilliant insight, sprinted up the beach on the hard sand, and beat me by more than 7 minutes.

He’s quite fast for a Prime Minister. But to be fair, he was then leader of the opposition.

You’d be forgiven wondering how he finds the time for a fun run, let alone the ironman triathlons he also competes in.

Tony Abbott is far from unusual when it comes to sporty world leaders. John Howard, Australian Prime Minister from 1996 till 2007, made a point of walking every morning, and reportedly clocked up 20,000km over the 11 years he was in office. He encouraged people to walk whenever they could,

“It doesn’t matter when you do it as long as you walk and if you walk half an hour or so a day, as many days in the week as possible, it’s as good a boost for your health as I think you can possibly find.”

The current fittest first couple ever, Barack and Michelle Obama, work out regularly too.

President Obama starts every day on the third floor of the White House in his personal gym, just above his bedroom, at 7:30am. He works out for an hour – cardio one day, weights the next.

Obama told Michael Lewis in an interview for Vanity Fair,

“You have to exercise or at some point you’ll just break down.”

Obama’s former campaign manager Jim Cauley reported that Obama’s logic was,

The rest of my time will be more productive if you give me my workout time.”

And who could be failed to be impressed by Michelle’s push-up contest with Ellen Degeneres on Ellen’s show (click here to view the youtube video).

In an interview with Oprah for O Magazine, Michelle said,

“I also do some jump rope, some kickboxing—and I’d like to take up Pilates, if I could figure out whether there’s time. After I had Malia, I began to prioritize exercise because I realized that my happiness is tied to how I feel about myself. I want my girls to see a mother who takes care of herself, even if that means I have to get up at 4:30 so I can do a workout.”

And, when Richard Branson, one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs was asked for his number one “secret” to greater productivity. His answer was simple:

“Work out.”

You can see where I’m going with all of this right?

Success goes hand in hand with exercise – the world’s most successful people exercise every day.

But whats that got to do with maintaining brain health?

Exercise, as neuroscience repeatedly shows, reduces the risk for cognitive decline and dementia.

Exercise makes you happier and live longer.

Exercising every day. Its not that easy is it?

Do you know the number one excuse people give for not exercising?  –> Not enough time.

I’m not sure what Tony Abbott, John Howard, the Obamas, Ellen, and Richard Branson have to say about that excuse.

After all, they have the same number of minutes in the day as we all do.

Maybe the difference is that they prioritise exercise.

For the sake of your brain health, so should you.



WebMDVanity FairOprahThe Role of Physical Activity in the Prevention and Management of Alzheimer’s Disease—Implications for Ontario. Ontario Brain Institute, 2013.  Jedrziewski MK, et al. Physical activity and cognitive health. Alzheimers Dement, 2007, 3:98-108.  Hendrie HC, et al. The NIH cognitive and emotional health project. Report of the critical evaluation study committee. Alzheimers Dement, 2006, 2:12-32.

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  1. zaid on November 7, 2013 at 7:55 pm

    excellent sharing . thanks a lot for such a great awareness

    • Sarah McKay on November 7, 2013 at 9:06 pm

      And thanks so much for reading and commenting 🙂

  2. Carol on November 9, 2013 at 8:50 pm

    I was at lunch today with five other women and we were discussing this topic. We all exercise regularly and all agreed that it helps our fitness levels, flexibility and core strength. In our fifties it’s not that big a deal but in another ten years we will be glad.

    • Lee on November 10, 2013 at 9:48 pm

      Thanks so much for this article! I have posted link to my FB page Facebook.com/leewaxtraining and also tweeted it.
      It is the basis on which our method of physical therapy, the Ronnie Gardiner Method, is founded. It’s a very flexible method of stimulating body and brain, so we work with neurological conditions like Parkinsons & Stroke rehab., brain injury, ADHD, dyslexia etc. Also work with Active Ageing, and at the other end of the spectrum with kids. Uses movements, rhythm and music, speech, visuals – and great fun to do.
      So what you are teaching on physical exercise and healthy brains is absolutely crucial to our work.
      I have signed up to your newsletter and will follow your blog!
      Thank you so much!

      • Sarah McKay on November 11, 2013 at 9:13 am

        Thank YOU so much Lee for sharing the post, and your kind words 🙂 It means a lot to get feedback like this.
        I’ll have a look at your site to see what you do too.


  3. Sarah McKay on November 15, 2013 at 11:08 am

    Thanks for the shout-out on your vlog Phoebe 🙂

  4. carole goldsmith on November 18, 2013 at 11:13 am

    Hi Sarah,

    Great story today.

    We are all very busy and what I do is have a 20 minute walk each morning and do some stretching. Then each evening during the week, after a busy work day, I have scheduled in my diary – a 20 min walk to the gym and a half an hour gym work out, or a Pilates or Body Balance class, depending on the day.

    I also attend pottery and painting classes as well as Japanese language classes and have a healthy diet, mainly plant based and regular tofu (brain food) diet and sometimes salmon or sardines.

    Using both sides of the brain with exercise, languages, creative activities, nutritious diet and the occasional crossword / sudoka
    plus lots of travel to countries of completely different cultures and languages (for my research / writing and lecturing work) all adds up for a healthy body and mind.

    We also need friends and family to make us healthy, happy and wise.

    Last week, at my gym, I saw the nutritionist for a full body test of body fat, muscle, measurements, weight etc, and the results were that I am 15 years younger than my actual age, so I am pleased with that and will keep working at keeping healthy and keeping my brain super successful.


    Carole Goldsmith

    • Sarah McKay on November 18, 2013 at 3:53 pm

      Good work Carole – you’re an inspiration!
      I must write more about language and brain health – I’ll be in touch.


  5. […] EXERCISE.  There you have it again! […]

  6. Sonya on December 27, 2013 at 10:41 pm

    Fantastic article Sarah! Thank you so much for highlighting the link these successful, smart people have – regular exercise.

    I’ve always been disappointed when PM Tony Abbott has been negatively portrayed in our press for his commitment to his workouts, we should be applauding anyone that prioritises their health & fitness and hold them up as an example.

    And as you’ve rightly pointed out in this article, we all have the same amount of minutes in our day, it’s about prioritising, and honouring our commitments to ourselves.

    Love your work! 😉
    Sonya x

  7. Stephanie on November 20, 2014 at 9:11 pm

    Excellent post! We will be linking to this particularly
    great content on our website. Keep up the good

  8. Kai on February 13, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    What’s your opion on boxing vs brain healtrh.
    Every punch to the head is a damage to the brain permanently.
    Tony Abbott is showing the early sign of dementia due to his boxing hobby.

    • Sarah McKay on February 16, 2015 at 9:36 am

      Interesting Q and observation. I wasn’t aware that Tony had a confirmed neurological diagnosis?
      There is plenty of evidence that boxing leads to brain damage – just look at Mohummed Ali!

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