Exercise for the Brain

Plato was given his nickname by his wrestling coach due to his broad shoulders. (Platon = broad)

“In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity.  Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together.  With these two means, man can attain perfection.”


Apparently even those iconic Ancient Greeks needed to be reminded to get to the gym from time to time.  As I stated in my blog post on the recent USDA/NHS Dietary Guidelines for Americans,  we seem to be an extremely health conscious people; we just seem to have the (potato) chips stacked against us when it comes to the quality of food and information made available to us by the one-size-fits-all establishments.  We depend on the allied health authorities such as the AMA, USDA, ACSM, and ACE to not only inform us of the proper way to exercise but also to continually give us evidence based reasons to exercise.  It is useless to know how to do something effectively if you have no good reason for doing it in the first place. For better or for worse, the inspirational message from both our governmental and health authorities as well as the commercial fitness industry is any one or combination of the following; “Get fit to get healthy, live longer, have more sex, look great, or get up off the floor”  Though these threats to our safety and appeal to our primal urges seem powerful enough to get us active, they are not good sources of permanent and meaningful behavior change motivation.  All of these factors deal largely with the physical body.

What Gets Measured….

A healthy conceptualization of exercise is one that sees the adaptation of the physiology and physique of the body merely as side effects of a life in motion.  Exercise should be seen as a medicine for the entire being, not just your buns and thighs.  It is no surprise, however, that these objective indicators are the focus of both our esthetic and health goals.  They are measurable.

More than a Runners High

Dr. John Ratey is a practicing Clinical psychiatrist and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who is working to quantify this mind/body connection.  He successfully prescribes exercise for everything from ADHD, mood disorder, addiction, menopause and Alzheimer’s.  His therapy is based off the latest in  medical research that links the physiological benefits of exercise to real psychological improvement. He articulates this mission in his latest book, Spark:

“What I aim to do here is to deliver in plain English the inspiring science connecting exercise and the brain…  I want to cement the idea that exercise has a profound impact on cognitive abilities and mental health.  It is simply one of the best treatments we have for most psychiatric problems.”

When people think of the effect of exercise on one’s mood, they often think of the transient rush of endorphins known as “runners high”.  Dr. Ratey maps out exactly how in addition to these feel-good chemicals running through the movers blood, there is also a great increase in utilization of proteins like IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor) , BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor) and VEGF (vaso-endothelial growth factor) for lasting positive effect.  Although these hormones are always present, Dr. Ratey explains how exercise effectively blasts these through the blood/brain barrier and causes psycological adaptation; just like exercise causes muscular adaptation.  The suggestion is that the primary objective of animal movement is to “work-out” the brain and improve functions of learning, reasoning and emotional affinity.

This is a very interesting concept when you think of it on an evolutionary level.  There was a period of time when all living species only had a sophisticated spinal cord.  Why did mother nature, through natural selection, decide to develop that mass of nerves rather than give the organism legs, or fangs, or something else a little more useful?  NYU neurophysiologist Rodolfo Llinas asserts that only a mobile creature needs a brain.  In his book, I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self, he tells the story of a sea squirt that starts life mobile then, once it roots itself in some coral, eats its own brain.  Llinas interprets from this that, “That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internalization of movement.”

A New Conclusion

When it comes to exercise, the end is not as important as the means.  You can move your body for whichever reason it is that suits you.  As a rule, I usually counter all health advice by saying that no one thing is good for everybody.  Exercise is probably the only exception.  It makes absolutely no difference your reasoning for starting an exercise program as to how your health will improve.  Once started, however, the adherence to the program does suffer as those superficial motivators either become less important or the initial goal is achieved.  When done properly, exercise changes the psychology of the person so much so that you actually want to work out.  Realizing that our main purpose for having the ability to move is to nourish the brain can not only be new motivation to become a mover but also may serve as a more permanent carrot at the end of your stick.  Let us hope we just don’t “over-think” ourselves with our improved cognition and snap the stick in half to get the carrot.

Sleep….then Move

Coffe break

Image by Francisco Javier Argel via Flickr

There are three major ways in which we can affect our bodies to a degree that is noticeable immediately; exercise, food and sleep. The first two are fairly obvious. If we run a marathon, we become tired. If we overindulge, we become lethargic. If we don’t get enough sleep, we drink a coffee and everything is all good…at least until 2pm. We are a people who don’t generally place enough value on getting a normal amount of sleep.
Let us define normal sleep. Some experts have prescribed a sliding scale based on age. I personally subscribe to the Ayurvedic definition of normal sleep. Sleep should take place between the hours of 10pm to 6am. During these hours our bodies slow down so that healing and regeneration can take place. From 10pm to 2am, the physical body is metabolizing, replenishing and repairing cells and tissues. From 2am to 6am the mind is digesting the days thoughts and emotions while restoring and preparing for the next day. This is why when you stay up too late, feel lethargic during the next day when you don’t sleep well in the early morning you wake up foggy in the brain.
The reasons we take sleep for granted are as subjective as shoe size however it is my opinion that one common factor comes in to play when we decide to sty up and make a dent in that DVR library at 10pm. The consequences of abnormal sleep are more subtle than the consequences of over-eating or over-exerting oneself. We are opportunistic beings from our brains all the way down to our mitochondria. We will prioritize our actions by weighing the pros and cons. If we can stay up a little later and finish that report that we could have started earlier, it may mean a promotion and a nicer car in due time. A mentor of mine, Dr. Suhas Kshirsagar often says, “We first spend our health on our wealth and then spend our wealth on our health”. Eight years in the pharmacy biz has made this abundantly clear to me.
When we don’t get enough sleep, our bodies make sacrifices in other areas. This is the noticeable change in the way we feel that I was talking about in the first few lines of this post. Consider this; nothing in our bodies is not constantly breaking down and being replenished. We “use up” a certain number of cells everyday in order to carry out the most basic functions. The body can not heal if it does not rest properly. Normal sleep is vitally important and necessary just to maintain the status quo. If anybody wanted to make any sort of improvement or change to their bodies, they would have to at least get normal sleep on a regular basis.