Heart and brain that dance exercise brain spark


“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.” Plato

Burning calories to lose fat is just one reason to exercise. I am going to give you better reasons because if it’s your only reason to exercise, it won’t become a habit. I’ll give you reasons that go far beyond the fuzzy notion of runners high. I am going to share the science with you, in hopes that it makes exercise something you WANT to do. Not merely to lose a few pounds, but to be your absolute best. After you discover all the benefits of exercise, you will understand why I say choosing to NOT EXERCISE is like taking a depressant that erodes self-control and impairs cognitive function. A small dose of daily exercise is the absolute best way to improve your life. The brain runs the show, and as you’ll soon see, exercise promotes better brain function. Our brain loves physical activity. It increases blood flow to the brain, delivering nutrients and removing the waste products of normal neuronal activity. Vigorous movement keeps our neurotransmitters in balance, strengthens our synaptic connections, and even stimulates the production of new brain cells. Some of these neurotransmitters, like endorphins, provide a powerful incentive to exercise. They act on our opioid receptors to produce morphine-like effects, making strenuous physical exercise pleasurable.

Exercise Habit Loop

Weight loss is a great goal, but it isn’t going to motivate you to exercise. Why? We don’t crave weight loss. A lot of people want to lose weight, but no one craves it. Cravings power the habit loop. Back in the early 1900s, everyone wanted clean teeth and a fresh mouth, but Americans didn’t develop the habit of brushing their teeth until they learned to crave the cool, tingling sensation that they correlated with a clean, fresh mouth. I suggest you focus on making exercise as pleasurable as possible.  Find an activity you enjoy, and make it even more enjoyable – combine it with audiobooks, Netflix, or anything else you enjoy. You will be more motivated to exercise. Exercise inherently makes us feel fantastic. After a few weeks, you will crave the way you feel after training. Ask a friend why they exercise. They will tell you it is because it makes them feel great. They may even say that when they cannot exercise, they start feeling depressed. When people ask me why I exercise every day, I ask them why wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t I want to feel great every day? It is easy to forget how fantastic it feels to exercise if it hasn’t become a habit. It’s the reason I suggest you write down how you feel after a great workout, so you can remind yourself when you aren’t motivated. Fortunately, after a couple of weeks, you will start craving how wonderful it makes you feel. You’ll discover that better days begin with better mornings!

We perform habits to cause a change in state. When we are hungry, we eat. When we are tired, we rest. When we are bored, we reach for our phone. When you start equating exercise with feeling great, you’ll have no trouble getting to the gym or getting up early. Fit people crave the endorphins and other neurotransmitters, like norepinephrine, and serotonin that workouts stimulate. For them, exercise is a positive addiction. There are many reasons to exercise beyond feeling good, but it is the most compelling. We are sentient beings – NOT robots. At times, our life can seem like a never-ending quest to feel good. Almost every habit we develop produces pleasure. I believe we have evolved to crave exercise because it is vital to our physical and mental health. Clinical studies make a compelling argument for regular exercise. It has been shown to maximize our mental performance and emotional well-being. Physical exercise primes us to learn.[i] Exercise stimulates the production of new neurons in the brain. These new neurons can map themselves into our existing neurological network to boost mental performance.

For a behavior to become a habit, it must produce a craving. Lucky for us, exercise makes us feel great. The key is to make exercise as enjoyable as possible so you’ll be consistent. Start small. Walking is an excellent form of exercise. It is super convenient. You can do it almost anywhere. It is easy to fit in a quick 10-minute walk practically anywhere in your day because you don’t have to change clothing or shower afterward. And because it is low-impact, you can do it every day without risk of injury. Whenever I am stressed out, I force myself to take a quick walk. I know it is the best thing I can do to relieve the stress and get my head right. This probably isn’t news to you.

If everyone knows that taking a walk makes them feel better, why do most people choose to eat, drink, or shop to cope with stress or depression? It’s because when we are stressed out or depressed, we tend to make poor choices. Most people that use one of these coping strategies report its ineffectiveness. So why don’t we go for a walk instead? Habit. As you already know, when we are tired or stressed out, we fall back on default actions. The key to behavior change is paying attention. Identify your trigger and take a walk to relieve your stress instead.

Why does aerobic exercise make us feel fantastic? Most of us know that exercise boosts the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, making us feel better and more energized, but that is just part of a much bigger story. Many doctors don’t even know the full picture. Only recently have we learned that exercise stimulates the production of endocannabinoids, neurotransmitters that activate cannabinoid receptors in brain reward regions during and after exercise resulting in an increased sense of well-being. We tend to focus on exercise’s direct weight loss impacts, increased energy expenditure, and insulin sensitivity, but its indirect effects are more important.

Exercise is a keystone habit. Keystone habits change the way you see yourself and lead to a host of good habits. When people start exercising, they stop smoking, cut down on their drinking, and start getting to bed earlier. These behavior changes are the byproduct of better self-control. Ironically, the biggest obstacle to establishing an exercise routine is possessing the willpower to start. Fortunately, once you have made exercise a habit, it will take almost no willpower. Habits conserve our willpower, and since physical exercise feels great, you are going to CRAVE the way it makes you feel. You know that diet plays a much bigger role in weight loss. That is why I say exercise’s ability to improve our self-control is more important than the calories burned. Of course, the more you enjoy something, the less willpower it takes to do it. People that have experienced the opioid-like pleasure that exercise produces WANT to exercise. Active people exercise because it makes them feel good.[ii]

You’ll discover that exercise is more about feeling good than looking good. People that exercise regularly are much less likely to suffer from depression and other psychological ailments. The benefits of regular exercise: less stress, increased patience, higher productivity, improved mood, focus, confidence, and impulse control lead to the development of other good habits. Daily exercise has the power to transform your life. I believe it is because when we feel better, we do better. Getting up a little earlier to exercise has psychological and physiological benefits. It gives you a mental edge over everyone else, knowing you had the discipline to get up and do a workout. You’ll begin the day with a win that gives you a sense of accomplishment. It is like walking around with a secret.

I begin every day with exercise, even if it is just taking my dog for a 10-minute walk. Developing a trigger will improve your consistency. My trigger is feeding our animals. Once I have completed my morning chores, I begin. Before I can talk myself out of it, I am on the bike pedaling away or putting a leash on my canine companion. There is no better way to start your day than with exercise. Not only will it elevate your metabolism for hours to come, but it will also lift your spirits. Exercise has been shown to improve our mood for up to 12-hours. If you struggle to connect exercise with how great it makes you feel, I suggest you jot down how wonderful you feel after your morning workout. Read it every time you are tempted to skip a workout. You’ll discover that exercise benefits our brains much more than our bodies. We treat our minds and bodies as separate, but they are bound together. How we use our bodies each day has a profound influence on our thoughts and feelings. Exercise unleashes a cascade of neurochemicals, and growth factors spark the formation of new neurons. “There is no capability difference between you and someone you consider to be an ultimate role model of success. The only difference is that they have learned to use their mind and body with more power on a consistent basis.” Tony Robbins

Our culture views the mind and body as separate, but science is painting a different picture. John Ratey, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, is one of the foremost experts on how physical exercise enhances our brains. He is the co-author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.  He has spent the past three decades, broadening our understanding of the biological relationship between our mind and body. His book combines research and anecdotal evidence to make a compelling argument for exercise. He is not advocating you exercise to build your muscles or condition your heart and lungs, though. He considers those positive side effects. His argument focuses on exercise’s brain benefits. He says exercise is the best thing we can do to maximize our cognitive abilities and mental health.

Ratey’s fascination with exercise began during his residency. It was during the height of the Boston Marathon’s popularity, and many of his patients were recovering from injuries related to their preparation for the 26.2-mile race. For the first time in their lives, these avid runners had to stop training. His patients complained of depression and an inability to focus and plan. They also began to procrastinate for the first time in their lives. These issues might not seem unusual, but for his patients, which included industry leaders and professors from Harvard and MIT, they were. Ratey hypothesized that exercise had protected his patients from these common ailments. He looked for research that would help him to understand how exercise helped his patients to regulate their emotions. Ratey is not the first to make such a hypothesis. In one of the first medical texts written in 300 years BC, Hippocrates prescribed long walks to depressed patients. He said if they were still depressed after their walk, they should go for another walk. Walks help us to clear our heads, reduce our anxiety, collect our thoughts, raise our spirits, and make us feel more in control and optimistic. Active people tend to be happy people.[iii] We know through our personal experience, that exercise makes us feel better and seems to help our focus, but why?

Ratey says, “The relationship between food, physical activity, and learning is hardwired into the brain’s circuitry.” When we were moving, it signified that something important was happening and that we needed to pay attention and learn. He provides evolutionary clues from our time as hunter-gathers. Compared to the animals we hunted, we were slow. Our chief advantage was our huge endurance capacity. We could not outrun our prey. We could, however, pursue them to exhaustion, a technique scientists refer to as persistent hunting. This type of hunting required us to be able to think between bouts of exercise. When the animal we were stalking ran over a hill and out of sight, we had to look for clues and speculate where it went. This helps explain the necessity to think on our feet, but not the mechanisms behind our increased cognitive function.

We know that exercise boosts endorphins, the feel-good chemicals that relieve stress and help us cope with pain. They operate similarly to opioids, a class of drugs that reduce our perception of pain and can create a feeling of euphoria. Unlike opioids like Morphine, Oxycodone, and Percocet, endorphins have no negative side effects and aren’t addictive. Experiencing what is commonly referred to as runners’ high, feels fantastic! It is the reason most people crave exercise. Still, its other benefits, like its role in reducing stress, shouldn’t be overlooked. You have learned that stress erodes our willpower, but did you know it also erodes neurological connections in the brain. Stress appears to interfere with cognition, attention, and memory. Studies have proven that chronic stress shrinks the hippocampus, the area of the brain vital to learning and memory. Exercise has countless benefits. Stress relief and runners’ high barely scratch the surface. You are about to learn how exercise creates the chemistry of mastery.

Exercise improves our ability to learn and think in a two-step process. First, it floods our brain with neurotransmitters that make us more alert. Next, it stimulates the production of growth factors in the brain that creates new neurons and builds stronger connections between our existing neurons. Using a computer analogy, exercise builds RAM, and it increases processing speed to improve our rate of learning. Like habits, these small improvements over time are going to compound. In one study, fit children between the ages of 9 and 10 had already developed hippocampi that were 12% larger than their sedentary peers.[iv] Just as our muscles begin to waste away as a natural part of the aging process, so do our brains. Brain volume begins to decline at a rate of approximately 5% per decade after the age of 40.[v] Exercise is the best thing we can do to reduce the impact of age-related cognitive decline. Exercise stimulates the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a growth factor that is essential to repairing neurons and encourages the creation of new neurons. Therefore, when you exercise regularly, you are helping to keep your existing brain cells healthy while producing new ones to replace those lost through age-related decay.

The more we learn about the brain, the stronger the analogy can be made that it is like a muscle. Exercise is the best way to preserve muscle and mind alike. The universal law of use-it-or-lose-it applies to both. Even the building process for both is similar. When we lift weights, we produce a stimulus. If we allow the muscle to recover and provide it with building materials, like protein, and calories, it becomes bigger and stronger. Without those raw materials, no muscle growth will occur. Building a new brain neuron follows a similar process. When we exercise, we stimulate the production of new neurons. Then if we provide our brain with new information, it will be mapped to the new neurological structures. Exercise stimulates the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, but if there is nothing to code to the new structures, they will die. You cannot merely inject BDNF into your bloodstream and become a genius. For learning to take place, there must be something to learn. It is the reason that I like to follow my morning workout with reading, writing, brainstorming, and listening to audiobooks. Not only are the structures in place for mapping the information post-exercise, but our rate of learning and cognitive function is also enhanced. If you have an important meeting or test, exercising immediately beforehand is arguably the best thing you can do to improve your performance.

John Ratey uses the phenomenal success of the Naperville school district’s revolutionary approach to physical education as one of his more persuasive arguments to exercise. Their fitness-focused program has not only produced some of the fittest students in the country but also some of the smartest. Their example of what exercise could do to promote academic excellence was the inspiration for his bestselling book, Spark. Naperville came to his attention when they received national recognition for ranking number one in science, and number six in math on the international Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Typically, the United States ranks in the middle to high teens. They elected to take the test as a country. What makes their accomplishment even more impressive is that 97% of the students took the test, not just their best and brightest. Educators from Japan, China, and South Korea, began visiting Naperville to learn more about their unique style of physical education so they could incorporate it into their already impressive programs.

Some people have attributed Naperville’s achievement to its favorable demographics. But they have consistently outperformed school districts with similar demographics that spend almost twice as much per pupil, considered by educators to be the best predictor of academic success. Not only are the kids in the Naperville school district outpacing the other schools academically, but they would likely outpace them on the running track. Students at Naperville Central are extremely fit. While the national average for overweight students in high school is 33%, with another 30% on the cusp, only 3% of Naperville’s kids are overweight. When the California Department of Education (CDE) conducted a study examining the correlation between fitness and academic performance, they discovered that fitter kids scored markedly better on standardized tests, even after normalizing for demographics. Professor Charles Hillman, of the University of Illinois, wanted to know which elements of physical fitness were most predictive of academic aptitude. He found that body mass index and aerobic fitness were the most significant predictors of academic performance on standardized tests.[vi]

Naperville’s unique style of physical education has evolved over the years. When Naperville Central’s physical education teacher, Phil Lawer, read a newspaper article in 1990 that highlighted the declining health of U.S. students, he resolved to do something about it. He noticed that the sports approach to physical education involved a lot of waiting and inactivity. He started having the students run the mile at least once a week. When he was able to equip students with heart rate monitors, he began grading them based on their effort, instead of their ability. Naperville Central has conducted some informal experiments over the years. Between 2005 and 2010, they examined the impact of taking a Learning Readiness Physical Education (LRPE) class before a reading or math class. They discovered that students that took an LRPE class before a reading comprehension class improved 52% to 56% more than those that didn’t and read one grade higher. The benefits of LRPE on mathematic performance were even more dramatic. Students that took an LRPE class improved 93% more than those that didn’t. When you think about how these improvements in learning rates would compound over time, you begin to understand why Naperville Central did so well on the TIMSS and why every school should be implementing a similar program.

Exercise doesn’t just help adolescent brains to function better. A 2007 study using adult participants discovered that they learned vocabulary words 20% faster post-exercise than they did before exercise. There increased rates of learning, directly correlated to their elevations in BDNF.[vii] Another study, with subjects between the ages of 50 and 64, concluded that 35-minutes of exercise at 70% of participant’s maximum training heart rate, improved cognitive performance.[viii] Age doesn’t appear to be a factor when it comes to exercise’s brain-building benefits. This is excellent news since cognitive decline appears to accelerate after the age of 70. I came across multiple studies that concluded that regular exercise is the best thing the elderly can do to maintain healthy brain function. Physical activity slows the rate of cognitive decline through two mechanisms. First, exercise increases BDNF levels in your bloodstream, which promotes better brain health. Second, it supports the creation of new neurons to replace any lost through age-related decay.

Gym teachers are sometimes looked down upon by their academic counterparts, but not at Naperville. Coach Paul Zientarski proudly tells the teachers in his school, “You need me. I build those brain cells. It is up to you to fill them.” Over the years, he has gotten many of the school system’s food vendors to donate exercise equipment, which they were more than happy to do since they are often criticized for their role in the growing adolescent obesity epidemic. Now Naperville Central has 18-fitness based activities to choose from, ranging from indoor rock climbing to cardio kickboxing. Naperville still plays sports during gym class, but they keep the team sizes small to promote greater participation. Teaching fitness instead of sports makes sense, especially given the fact that only about 5% of adults past the age of 26 keep active by playing team sports. Naperville’s example suggests that changing our physical education (PE) programs to emphasize fitness instead of sports could reverse the obesity trend and produce better students in the process. Regular exercise promotes a host of better behaviors that helps us to stay lean and fit.

Zientarski says that any school district can implement an LRPE program. They may have to begin with simple equipment. Anything that gets their kid’s heart rates between 70% and 85% of their maximum training heart rate for 20-minutes is going to prime their students for better learning. This level of exertion is described as somewhat hard but sustainable. He and the PE4Life group have been promoting the concept of using fitness-focused physical education to produce fitter, smarter students. Over a thousand educators from three hundred schools have completed their training program. Tim McCord, was a physical education coordinator when he graduated from the PE4Life course in 1999. Inspired by what he learned, McCord transformed the physical education program in the economically challenged school district of Titusville, Pennsylvania, almost overnight. It has made measurable improvements not just in their student’s academic performance, but also their behavior. Exercise leads to the development of better impulse control. Better self-control leads to better behavior.

Exercise is more effective than the drugs that target specific neurotransmitters. These medications often produce an unnatural imbalance of neurochemicals in the brain. Exercise, on the other hand, simultaneously stimulates multiple neurotransmitters to create a healthy balance of brain chemicals. Another advantage exercise has over medication is greater self-efficacy and improved self-esteem. You are the one improving your mental health, not a pill. When you discover that you can make your life better through exercise, it is incredibly empowering. A study in 2000 concluded that exercise is better than sertraline (Zoloft) at treating depression.[ix] Unfortunately, exercise doesn’t have a Madison Avenue marketing firm extolling its benefits like Zoloft, and other psychotropic drugs. The story was buried on page 14 of the New York Times. “I tell people that going for a run is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin because, like the drugs, exercise elevates these neurotransmitters. It’s a handy metaphor to get the point across, but the deeper explanation is that exercise balances neurotransmitters — along with the rest of the neurochemicals in the brain.” John J. Ratey

When we exercise regularly, we increase blood flow and circulation to the brain, which improves cognitive function. Exercise floods our brain with powerful neurochemicals that increase alertness, focus, and growth factors that build a better brain. The neurotransmitters regulate the chemicals in the brain to help maintain a healthy balance, so it functions properly. Ratey says, “Every year, it seems we are discovering more compounds that are made in the body when we are moving, that travel up to the brain to help our brains work better.” Growth factors are proteins that build and maintain healthy brain cells. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is one of the most studied growth factors. When researchers sprinkled BDNF onto neurons in a petri dish, the cells sprouted new branches; the same structures required for mapping new information. Ratey was the first to describe BDNF as Miracle-Grow for the brain. Besides building brain structures that increase our capacity to store information, BDNF also strengthens our synaptic connections by bolstering signal strength.[x]

Low levels of BDNF are linked to Alzheimer’s, accelerated aging, poor neural development, neurotransmitter dysfunction, obesity, depression, and even schizophrenia. Nearly every form of cognitive dysfunction is attributed to low levels of BDNF.[xi] Normal levels of BDNF are essential for balancing our mood and combating stress. The latest research studies demonstrate that these new neurons that are created through exercise can map themselves into our existing network of connections to boost mental performance, like adding RAM to a computer.[xii]

If you want to make exercise a habit, something you WANT TO DO, as opposed to something you HAVE TO DO to lose weight, I suggest you focus on its other benefits. These benefits that have been scientifically proven are:

  • Improved Impulse Control & Behavior
  • Improved Learning
  • Improved Motivation
  • Improved Attention
  • Improved Self-esteem
  • Improved Mood and Anxiety Regulation
  • Decreased Restlessness
  • Improved Arousal
  • Reduced Fatigue and Greater Vitality
  • Reduced Stress and Anxiety
  • Improved Self-Efficacy

[i] John J. Ratey MD, and Eric Hagerman, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Little, Brown, and Company; Reprint edition (January 1, 2013) p. 45

[ii] Krystina A. Finlay, David Trafimow, and Aimee Villarreal, “Predicting Exercise and Health Behavioral Intentions: Attitudes, Subjective Norms, and Other Behavioral Determinants,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 32 (2002): 342. –56.

[iii] Travis Bradberry, “Ten Habits Of Incredibly Happy People,” Forbes, Feb 14, 2017.

[iv] University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Children’s brain development is linked to physical fitness, research finds.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 September 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100915171536.htm

[v] Svennerholm L, Boström K, Jungbjer B. Changes in weight and compositions of major membrane components of human brain during the span of adult human life of Swedes. Acta Neuropathol 199794345–352.

[vi] John J. Ratey MD, and Eric Hagerman, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Little, Brown and Company; Reprint edition (January 1, 2013) page 25.

[vii] High impact running improves learning. Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2007 May;87(4):597-609. Epub 2006 Dec 20.

[viii] Shorter term aerobic exercise improves brain, cognition, and cardiovascular fitness in aging, Published online 2013 Nov 12. DOI: 10.3389/fnagi.2013.00075

[ix] Dr. James Blumenthal 4-week study – Exercise vs. Zoloft (two studies were done one in 1999 the other in 2009.

[x] John J. Ratey MD, and Eric Hagerman, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Little, Brown and Company; Reprint edition (January 1, 2013) page 39.

[xi] Anita E. Autry and Lisa M. Monteggia, Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor and Neuropsychiatric Disorders, Pharmacol Rev. 2012 Apr; 64(2): 238–258.

[xii] Dr. Douglas Fields, “Brain Health: How Exercise Can Stimulate the Birth of New Neurons,” Huffington Post, THE BLOG 12/04/2010, Updated May 25, 2011

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