Provision #758: Your Brain On Exercise

Laser Provision


I have often written about the connection between my running routines and these weekly Provisions. Schedule permitting, I often sit down and write them soon after I clean up from a long run. I’m doing that right now. If you thought that running for 2+ hours just gives me a lot of time to think, you have only a small part of the picture. Exercise doesn’t just give me time to think, it fuels the brain with ideas, happiness, vitality, alertness, and creativity. That’s because, as we have seen my current Provision series, the brain is not just in our heads. It is distributed throughout the body and is nourished through a physiology of extracellular chemicals and fluids. If you want to make your brain smarter, then exercise may be just what the doctor ordered. Intrigued? Read on.

LifeTrek Provision


The connection between exercise and intelligence is well established. If you think exercise is good just for your heart and weight, then I encourage you to think again. Exercise is the best thing you can do for your brain. That’s true on every level, including IQ and EQ, cognitive and emotional intelligence.

It wasn’t that long ago that people thought the brain more or less stopped developing new cells and connections in childhood. Just as women have a fixed number of eggs at birth (approximately 400,000), which then decreases steadily with age, it was thought that people had a fixed number of cells in their brains. After childhood, it was all downhill from there with the brain steadily losing cells and connections with age.

That was then, this is now. Current research indicates that brains are flexible and pliable networks of cells and connections that expand and shrink over time in response to external and internal stimulation. When it comes to our brains, including our cognitive and emotional capacities, we truly are in a “use it or lose it” dynamic. But the “it” is far larger and more expansive than you might imagine. It’s not just mental stimulation that helps to counteract the effects of aging. If you want to grow your brains, then exercise may be the most helpful technique of all.

The same blood flow that stimulates muscle growth in response to exercise also stimulates mental growth. That’s because our muscles and minds are interconnected. They feed on and respond to the same extracellular fluids and exercise generates a plethora of hormones, peptides, transmitters, factors, and protein ligands that mediate life-enhancing, emotionally-charged information.

Everyone knows this, of course, but we don’t always connect the dots. We know that exercise is good for us but we’re not always good to ourselves when it comes to exercise. It’s easy to make excuses, to be too tired, to be too busy, or to just not feel like exercising right now. So we put it off until later, only later never comes. So we put it off until tomorrow, but tomorrow is no better than today. So we put it off until the weekend, which may or may not work out — especially with a Super Bowl game to watch (or some other distraction).

At this point, we’re in a vicious cycle and a downward spiral. We may vaguely realize the consequences of not exercising, but we assume they can’t really be that serious. When we start feeling depressed or we start forgetting things, it never dawns on us that these may be self-inflicted wounds. By failing to exercise we are failing to grow our brains and we are accelerating the aging process. It happens one skipped exercise session at a time.

Here are some of the things scientists know about the brain benefits of exercise:

  • Exercise increases alertness by increasing blood flow in and to the brain.
  • Exercise reduces depression by releasing feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine.
  • Exercise combats ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) in both children and adults.
  • Exercise smoothes out behavior for 2-4 hours after the exercise.
  • Exercise causes new stem cells to grow, refreshing the brain and other body parts.
  • Exercise also stimulates nerve growth factors. That’s why John Ratey, MD, refers to exercise as “Miracle-Gro for the brain.”
  • Exercise calms the nerves, reducing anger, fatigue, and tension. It’s great for anxiety disorders.
  • Exercise improves “executive function,” the ability to make wise, situation-appropriate decisions.
  • Exercise strengthens working memory, the type used to execute everyday tasks.
  • Exercise reduces the risk of dementia later in life.

Are you persuaded yet? I hope so. The problem with our world is that we have become a sedentary society. Activities that used to be the norm, like walking and playing outside, are now things we have to make ourselves do. With the advent of the digital age, it’s become possible to live and work without leaving home. And even those who still go to an office may only walk to and from their cars as part of their daily routine. Then we wonder why we’re not thinking as clearly or feeling as good as when we were younger. The problem is not aging; the problem is a lack of exercise.

In his excellent book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, John Ratey, MD, makes this case persuasively right from the start of the book:

“We all know that exercise makes us feel better, but most of us have no idea why. We assume it’s because we•re burning off stress or reducing muscle tension or boosting endorphins, and we leave it at that. But the real reason we feel so good when we get our blood pumping is that it makes the brain function at its best, and in my view, this benefit of physical activity is far more important — and fascinating — than what it does for the body. Building muscles and conditioning the heart and lungs are essentially side effects. I often tell my patients that the point of exercise is to build and condition the brain.”

“In today’s technology-driven, plasma-screened-in world, it’s easy to forget that we are born movers — animals, in fact– because we•ve engineered movement right out of our lives. Ironically, the human capacity to dream and plan and create the very society that shields us from our biological imperative to move is rooted in the areas of the brain that govern movement. As we adapted to an ever-changing environment over the past half million years, our thinking brain evolved from the need to hone motor skills. We envision our hunter-gatherer ancestors as brutes who relied primarily on physical prowess, but to survive over the long haul they had to use their smarts to find and store food. The relationship between food, physical activity, and learning is hardwired into the brain’s circuitry.”

“But we no longer hunt and gather, and that’s a problem. The sedentary character of modern life is a disruption of our nature, and it poses one of the biggest threats to our continued survival. Evidence of this is everywhere: 65 percent of our nation’s adults are overweight or obese, and 10 percent of the population has type 2 diabetes, a preventable and ruinous disease that stems from inactivity and poor nutrition. Once an affliction almost exclusively of the middle-aged, it’s now becoming an epidemic among children. We•re literally killing ourselves, and it’s a problem throughout the developed world, not merely a province of the supersize lifestyle in the United States. What’s even more disturbing, and what virtually no one recognizes, is that inactivity is killing our brains too — physically shriveling them.”

“Fortunately, exercise unleashes a cascade of neurochemicals and growth factors that can reverse this process, physically bolstering the brain’s infrastructure. In fact, the brain responds like muscles do, growing with use, withering with inactivity. The neurons in the brain connect to one another through ‘leaves’ on treelike branches, and exercise causes those branches to grow and bloom with new buds, thus enhancing brain function at a fundamental level.”

So how much exercise is enough? The short answer is that no exercise is too little to be insignificant when it comes to the effects on the brain. Even short breaks to walk or stretch have a measurable impact. So don’t use time as your excuse. Those simple things that you have heard about when it comes to physical fitness and weight loss, things like taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking further away from the entrance of a building, are also good for cognitive and emotional abilities. If you want to remember what you went in the store to get then walking a few extra steps may help you do that.

The longer answer is that more and harder is better. When it comes to the brain, vigorous cardiovascular exercise at least three times a week is the best medicine. Five times a week, totaling at least 150 minutes, is even better. Walking, running, swimming, rowing, cycling, or working out on any machine that raises our heart rate is all we need. Even chores like gardening, sweeping, raking, or cleaning can help to meet our brain’s exercise requirements.

And it’s never too soon or too late to start. The earlier in life the better, so we set good habits. But even senior citizens who start to walk regularly after long periods of sedentary lifestyles demonstrate measurable improvements in memory skills, learning ability, concentration, abstract reasoning, and mood.

The bottom line is this: exercise is not just good for the brain, it is essential for optimum brain functioning. Sitting around all day and sleeping all night is a surefire formula for brain deterioration and dysfunction. If we want to stay sharp and happy, then we have to stay active.

Coaching Inquiries: What is your pattern when it comes to exercise? Are you getting at least 90 minutes of vigorous exercise a week? What could help you to push that up to 150 minutes or more? Who could help you? What are some of your favorite exercises and activities? How might your life be better if your brain was sharper and your mood was happier? What’s keeping you from taking the first step?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation. 

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.


Thank you for your latest Provision: Your Brain on Dialogue. It is a fascinating topic and since my youngest daughter has epilepsy, everything relating to mind/body, brain and healing is especially interesting to me.

My background is in massage and body work and my training in Asian disciplines has taught me to focus my attention on the “emotional foods” we are consuming. You were referring to emotional resonance and considering that we are about 75% made up of water (our complex internal chemistry relies on this solvent/conductor) it is truly amazing that all our thoughts (and associated emotions) carry a measurable frequency that imprints our cellular make-up.

During my work with Dr. Emoto (The Hidden Messages in Water) I realized that dis-ease and all the joys in life are connected to our internal thought pattern and equally responsive to our emotional environment. My daughter is my greatest teacher to this day. We don’t know what each day holds, she has taught me to be flexible and to go with the flow, she has taught me gratitude for all things in life and to embrace my sense of humor.

Perhaps this is why I am so connected to your work with Evocative Coaching, because its foundation is rooted in appreciation of what is, focusing on the positive aspects of people, organizations, and life. It is transforming people and systems because it resonates with people on all levels, not just a theory.

Scientist have shown that all thoughts and actions translate into frequencies and our thoughts leave a measurable pattern on an MRI. Measurable in terms of blood flow and electrical output. Scientist are now able to “read” our thoughts in this way.

Our thoughts effect our bodies in many ways; non-verbal communication and the energy it carries is far more powerful than the spoken word. They effect our sense of well-being. Thoughts and words change the molecular structure of water and thus our internal chemistry. Therefore, leaders who set out to transform need to be instrumental in creating a positive climate and culture within their organization to fully leverage everyone’s true potential.

Thanks so much for all you do. Every week, I am looking forward to the next issue:) With gratitude and cheers.



May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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