The first book recommended to me after I became a personal trainer was “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.”
Written by John J Ratey, MD and Eric Hagerman, “Spark” argues that exercise helps produce “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” Most of the evidence supporting this argument was drawn from the previous decade of studies on learning capacity, cognitive decline, and brain health. The book is now seven years old, making some of that evidence almost old enough to vote.
It’s not very “Radical” or “New” anymore, but it’s still crucial. The intervening years haven’t done much to blunt the message. In fact, the opposite is true. From pre-schools to assisted living centers, programs using this evidence have seen amazing success in areas of brain health and growth.
You won’t find medical advice here, or an argument to replace drugs with running. But for most brain related issues, exercise is now recognized as an additional method of treatment.
There are so many variables we can’t control affecting brain development and health. Environmental, trauma-related, and genetic factors to name a few. Exercise gives us a clear option to feed the brain more tools to grow, adapt, maintain, and rebuild itself. Here’s a variable we can control, and the evidence points to exercise’s ability to mitigate some of those others.
Exercise and physical skill building should be components of any program concerned with cognitive development, education, mental health, or rehabilitation.
Just a few brain-related concerns that exercise may help with:
- Recovery from Birth Issues
- Postpartum Depression
- Learning Capacity
- Stress Response and Anger Management
- ADHD (and attention capacity in general)
- Alzheimer’s (and memory in general)
- Hormonal Changes (throughout life)
- Brain longevity
There are no magic pills that solve every problem. But name something else that can boost your SAT score at 17, help manage chronic depression in your 30’s, lower your risk for Alzheimer’s in your 70’s, and help you with the Sunday crossword puzzle.
This is the part where, like a drug commercial, I suggest you “talk to your doctor about exercise today.”
What’s the Exercise-Brain Connection?
From our earliest moments, we learn though movement. The brain is adapting in order to move faster, more efficiently, safer, and stronger. It grows to keep pace with our movements. You run to get faster, and not just because your legs are stronger. It’s because your brain is actually better at running. It changed. You reprogrammed your brain for running.
Think about the impact of that statement. You intentionally changed your brain to serve you better. Your brain is programmable. And reprogrammable. You can grow its capacity, on purpose. Simply through exercise.
If movement grows brains, it also heals them. It makes them more resilient, more elastic. Neuroplasticity is how able-to-flex-or-change your brain is. It’s also what makes learning possible and determines how easy that learning is.
Our brains heal. They bend, and reshape. Intentional exercise aids with these processes. Movement carves new pathways, and triggers the regrowth of damaged areas. And moderate to intense intentional movement seems to do this to the greater degree than the standard activities of daily living.
What Type of Exercise?
There isn’t one simple answer to this question. We know you need a variety to see the best results. The following list may look familiar if you know about building strength. This is why some folks refer to the brain as a muscle. What’s good for one is often good for the other.
For maximal brain impact you need:
1. Moderate to intense exercise multiple times per week. Low intensity work is great, but you need to get that heart rate up and push yourself.
2. Exercise with a learning component. This could be learning new movements in your strength training or taking up a movement-based hobby like dance. Movement learning helps keep the brain elastic and makes other types of learning easier.
3. Aerobic as well as anaerobic. This is where running, biking, swimming, etc. come into play.
Breaking Down the Specifics
Here’s what we’ll look at in the follow-up parts of this series:
Part Two: Growth – how exercise causes or improves brain growth and development.
Part Three: Recovery/Maintenance – how exercise helps us heal from damage and maintain brain health.
Part Four: Longevity – how exercise helps to create a resilient brain for life.
If you skipped right to the bottom, here’s what I want you to know:
The benefits of intentional exercise on brain growth, health, and longevity start before birth and extend throughout our life. Skill development, mood stabilization, learning capacity, and recovery from damage are all boosted by exercise.
Your brain needs exercise. It relies on the chemicals released by movement and the stress exercise provides in order to stay elastic. An elastic brain is a stronger, better regulated brain.
Author Max Steele is an ACE certified personal trainer and Precision Nutrition level 1 coach at Hyatt Training. He believes in the transformative power of sustainable nutrition, strength training, & game night. He aims to reignite self-discovery in those who doubt their capabilities and to prove the crucial role of “play” in the pursuit of deep health. Learn more about Max, or get in touch with him by emailing us at Go@HyattTraining.com.
Hyatt Training is a team of certified, enthusiastic and innovative personal trainers in Portland, Oregon. To read more fitness related posts like this one, follow this link.