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.

Get Moving!

Jogging on a bright November morning

“Lose 10 lbs with zero exercise!”  That sounds like the typical weight-loss quackery that you may see on an infomercial somewhere.  One of the major causes of non-adherence to a weight-loss program is loss of motivation.  Exercise is hard work and takes a toll on the body.  Just saying the word exercise makes most of us cringe.  What habitual movers come to realize is that despite our natural affinity towards the path of least resistance, there is a point after adopting a more active lifestyle (usually after the initial soreness and shock go away) that we start to have a better subjective exercise experience.   It may catalyzed by visible fat loss, reduction in blood pressure pills, or even a 24/7 Zen-like consciousness.  The side effects of exercise are uncertain and infinate.

The unfortunate reality is that most people seldom make it past the first phase.  Whenever anybody who has been inactive for a long period of time approaches me about starting an exercise program I often shock them with my recommendation.  I tell them that they should not do any exercise for at least the first month.  It seems stupid for a personal trainer to recommend this.  They see it as if their mechanic told them not to drive their car as much so that it lasts longer.  In an attempt to recover my recently lost credibility, I further explain that exercise is defined as planned and structured activity that is done to maintain or improve physical fitness.

Exercise is only a subclass of physical activity.  Physical activity (PA) is anything that uses energy through bodily movement.  Of course there are varying degrees of energy expenditure.   The proper amount of caloric expenditure needed to result in a loss of body fat depends on how much you take in.  I am the last person to say that a proper diet is just a calorie counting scorecard (watch for my upcoming nutrition post) however, in it’s simplistic form, weight-loss only happens when we take in less calories than we use.  (Proper nutrition addresses the “take-in” side of the equation while endocrine adaptation to exercise and said nutrition addresses the “usage” side of the equation.)

A young boy, in Jakarta Indonesia, holds a tat...

So what do I recommend as the proper way to start a weight-loss endeavor?  Become a mover.  Don’t wait until you have all the designer workout clothes and fancy equipment.  Just move!

Our entire metabolism is designed to store enough energy to carry out our vital biological functions while setting aside enough to allow us to move from place to place.  If our total caloric expenditure was the size of a medium 8 slice pizza, our energy expenditure for physical activity would only be one slice.  Although its a small slice, its the only one we have any control over.  All our metabolic functions, from digestion to regeneration of your finger nails, account for the rest of the pizza pie.  The safe way to increase caloric expenditure (now that Hydroxycut is off the market once and for all) is to move more.  It doesn’t matter how you move.  You don’t have to become a runner, cyclist, rock-climber, or a Yogi.  The body will initially benefit from any increase in physical activity.  Moving is what your body is designed to do. Although it helps, you can’t just park your car further away from the entrance and expect to lose weight.  To be a mover is to make Mother Earth aware of your presence.  While you are walking from your parking spot next to the street, look for the most challenging route to take.  For me this means jumping out of my Jeep for bone density, walking the line between the parking spaces for balance, doing a pull up on a low hanging branch and climbing up on to the utility box for strength, all while walking at a brisk pace for cardio.  Of course you may elicit a few stares but hey, you are getting healthy.  Being a mover is a bit of a regression to our childhood.  It will make you feel better spiritually and physically while providing a good platform from which to launch your voyage to wellness.

Disclaimer:  You should consult your physician before starting any significant change in physical activity.  Start slow and don’t break your neck hopping over fire-hydrants.

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A senior citizen is practicing an agility exercise