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.


The French Connection

Pierre de Coubertin

Jack LaLanne

It is no coincidence that two of the greatest movers over the last two centuries were of Franco heritage.  Two men so passionate about their causes that they would have to swim against the current of society, occasionally while being handcuffed and tied to a fleet of boats.  One man gave us the Modern Olympic Games and the other gave mainstream medical legitimacy to physical fitness. But is there something unique about the French that inspires an affinity for physical activity and feats of strength?

Liberté, égalité, fraternité;

How the French Revolution led to the Olympics

The 18th century brought about two great revolutions in the European sphere; the American Revolution and the French Revolution.  It was a time of great upheaval and redefinition of national values.  In America, we experimented with what is now known as the American Trinity (Liberty, In God We Trust, E Pluribus Unum) while France declared as the motto of their Revolution; Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.  The two are seemingly identical mottos- save for the obvious religious overtones of the American set- however, these two national ethea shaped two very different nations.

As the French elevated the idea of equality-of-all-citizens, they lowered sharp blades upon the necks of the aristocracy and the clergy.  This secularization left no author of moral ideals such as equality, but man himself.  If man grants equality, man must maintain equality through constant progressive and politically-correct social reconstruction.  This national value of man-made equality was not constrained just to economics. The egalitarianism went so far as to affect the distinction between the sexes.

84 years after the end of the Revolution, at the age of twenty, Pierre de Coubertin found himself in a country of men more concerned with vanity than masculinity. He was concerned with the “sexual suicide” Geroge Gilder would later write about.

Having been born to an aristocratic family in Paris, France, young Pierre had the means to spend his days romanticizing the classic depiction of masculinity he only found in the great works of the Ancients.

Marianne, a French National Symbol at Place de la Republique

He felt frustrated with the comparison of his experience in life and the heroic figures he read about in the Iliad and the Odyssey.  He took up the crusade to bring sports and physical education to French public schools as a way to restore the sense of “moral and social strength” in his fellow Frenchmen.  Physical strength and contest was something that seemingly fell out of the Franco mind when the Revolutionaries replaced Hercules (a long time symbol of the pre-Revolutionary French monarchy) as a national symbol with Marrianne.

After many years of multi-national campaigning, Pierre de Coubertin revived the Ancient Olympiad and gave the world what is so cherished as the Modern Olympic Games.  What was initially done to reverse the spread of feminism over his fellow man, has become an inspiration to many individual athletes and given pause to the nations they represent, to reflect upon whatever political and physical wars in which they may be engaged.  The dream of de Coubertin was that at least every 4 years, the world will be at peace and relegate all animosity to the field, court, pitch, pool or track.

Francois Henri le Magnifique

One year before Pierre de Coubertin left this Earth, a young son of French immigrants opened what is thought to be one of the first modern health clubs in America.  “Jack” LaLanne had spent the latter part of his adolescence rabidly self-teaching and exploring the mysteries of physical fitness and bodybuilding.  One must understand that Jack’s message was delivered at a time when much of America had only seen men of his physical stature at the circus.  This “strongman” in a jumpsuit had to rely on great feats of strength and endurance in order to be taken seriously by the American public. 

Sitting here on my physio-ball chair, typing this exploration of physical virtue, I am awe-struck at the seemingly insurmountable social resistance young Jack LaLanne faced as he pioneered and invented the fitness industry.  He saw a certain complacency amongst his fellow Americans and he stopped at nothing to inspire us for our own good, to get our collective butts off the couch and move.  Much of what we take for granted, such as the “Jumping Jack” and the Smith machine are creations from ideas first created inside the brain of the Magnificent Jack LaLanne.

Corporeal Neglect

So much “runoff” good has come from the individual dreams of these two men.  They both saw great flaws in their respective society and they worked tirelessly for their cause.  Their revolutionary thinking resulted in the unconventional utilization of sport and physical activity for the purpose of building character, virtue, mental fortitude and eventually a greater awareness of the necessity to maintain a healthy balance of both mind and body.  It seems that with any enlightenment and advancement in areas of the mind comes a corporeal neglect that overcomes a people and marginalizes anyone who espouses the metaphysical worth to the individual and the society at large of a life in motion.  The seemingly intuitive lessons of sportsmanship, honor and a sense of overcoming adversity go lost to a society that does not properly respect the mind/body dynamic.  Both men served as reminders to us just as we had become too far intoxicated with the post enlightenment thought of the 18th century and the post Industrial Revolution brought on by Henry Ford in the 20th century.   Today we are faced with a population led by a government more focused on genetically engineering our food supply and providing sick-care on mass rather than heeding the simple messages of Coubertin and LaLanne.  Do not sacrifice the body for the sake of an enlightened and more sophisticated mind, for as smart and advanced as we are, the wonders of the physical body are still a mystery to us.  With our minds, we have freed slaves, negotiated treaties, created the internet and sent men to the moon; but we have yet to manufacture a kidney or cure a cold.