Craig Leonard

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The Effect Exercise Has On The Brain: Yet One More Reason To Train Your Body

Craig Leonard February 27, 2014
Effects of Exercise On The Brain

Everybody knows by now that exercise is essential for building a head-turning body. In fact, the outward manifestation of physically asserting oneself on a regular basis is what leads millions to resolve to hit the gym with reckless abandon during the month of January each year.

Most people are equally aware of the fact that exercise will promote the optimal function of a number of physiological systems. Immune system strength, hormonal balance, blood sugar control and energy levels are all positively influenced by physical training.

Exercise molding the body into a sexier version is indeed a powerful allure to hit the gym.

Although, I would argue that keeping our bodies operating with prime efficiency on the inside is of superior importance to any amount of sexiness exercise may produce on our outward appearance.

After all, gaining 20lbs of muscle – or even looking like “The Rock” – wouldn’t be all that desirable if it came with the worry of dying from a massive heart attack at any moment.

Fortunately, physical training does much more for our bodies than simply making us more physically attractive.

Exercise enhances the entirety of our physical being, not just how good we look naked.

Even the brain benefits from your commitment to physically training your body, as I’m about to show you.

The cerebral benefits regular exercise affords us are rarely considered. Personal trainers are just as guilty as anyone when it comes to not propagating this information to the masses.

As an industry, we tend to overplay the impact exercise has on the physique and don’t place nearly enough emphasis on deeper physiological matters.

In all fairness, though, I don’t believe the average person cares nearly as much about their brain function as they do about the aesthetics of their physical appearance. Right or wrong, that’s just how it is.

I admit it. I didn’t pick up my first barbell to make myself smarter. I did it to build a set of Arnold-sized biceps and pecs I could pop like this.

Looking fantastic is a laudable goal, for sure, and it’s an obvious one to initially pursue because we can readily identify the plethora of ways our lives will be improved by looking our best.

But our brain influences every aspect of our being:

  • Creativity
  • Sex Drive
  • Mood
  • Confidence
  • Learning
  • Memorization
  • Coordination
  • Ambition

And if exercise improves the functioning of the one organ in our body that has such a grand influence over our quality of life, it’s time to give credit where credit is due.

Drawing The Link Between Exercise and One’s Intellectual Prowess

Link Between The Brain and Exercise

During my fervent attempt to convince you that having more muscle is almost always a good thing I noted the fact that looking fit is indelibly tied to one’s income.

In particular, I referenced a study performed by Professor Vasilios Kosteas at Cleveland State University. To bring you up to speed, what Professor Kosteas found was that people who are rated as being “in shape” make an average of 10 percent more in salary per year than people who aren’t.

At first glance, it’s easy to chalk this up as bosses simply being more free-handed when giving out raises to those employees who are more physically attractive – and there may be a small kernel of truth to that.

But what if these same “in shape” men and women were completely deserving of such a gap in earnings by also being cognitively superior to their peers?

Before I move on, I have to be fair and say that stereotyping all fit people as being more intelligent than their less fit counterparts would be completely unfair and dishonest. After all, I know several sedentary men and women who seem to live on donuts, candy and soda, that I would humbly admit to being intellectually inferior to.

The point I intend to make here is that all things being equal, a person’s cognitive function will be markedly improved by engaging in regular exercise. Contrasting two women and saying one is smarter than the other solely on the basis of her looking better in a pair of jeans is obviously ridiculous!

What wouldn’t be ridiculous is concluding that a girl who goes from being able to fit into nothing but sweat pants, to rocking a pair of size 4 skinny jeans, has also improved her brainpower in the process.

We all know fit, good looking individuals that workout religiously, yet seem to possess an intellect that is on par with that of a grapefruit. Experience tells us that being fit, in and of itself, is not necessarily correlated with genius.

But it is scientifically valid to say that said individuals (God bless them) are smarter than they’d be if they replaced their daily exercise sessions with laying around, watching Seinfeld reruns and eating Fast Food Lasagna.

Alright. Let’s lay some scientific groundwork to this claim, shall we?

In his book “Grain Brain”, Dr. Perlmutter cites several unique studies that looked at the direct effects exercise has on the brain – and the studies cited in “Grain Brain” barely scratch the surface.

A quick online search will yield hundreds of results showing science-backed confirmation of the direct causal relationship between exercise and brain health.

To be honest, the fact that exercise benefits brain function isn’t exactly groundbreaking news to me. I’ve read a number of studies over the years that have drawn a conclusive link between exercise and improved cognition.

But while reading Dr. Perlmutter’s book, it reminded me of this oft-ignored benefit of engaging in regular exercise and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to share it with you.

How Exercise Enhances Our Brain Function

Exercise On Brain Neurons

To start with, a number of various studies have definitively determined that exercise induces neurogenesis. Neurogenesis is an intimidating five-syllable word, but it simply describes the creation of new neurons in the brain.

Neurons (also known as nerve cells) are the electrical pathways that send signals throughout the body. Our neurons control everything from subconscious activities like breathing and blinking all the way down to impacting our ability to learn new skills and memorize important pieces of information.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of our neurons are created while in our mother’s womb and during our formative years as children. By adulthood, neurogenesis is almost non-existent by comparison.

Over time, as our neurons die off, this can lead to fading memories, dulled cognition, impaired ability to learn new skills, dementia and even Alzheimer’s disease.

You’ve probably heard the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Well, there is some semblance of truth to this as learning becomes increasingly challenging as we age and our neurons die off faster than we replace them with new ones. This fact is kind of depressing, but there is a ray of hope: exercise.

According to this study, “exercise increases synaptic plasticity by directly affecting synaptic structure and potentiating synaptic strength, and by strengthening the underlying systems that support plasticity, including neurogenesis.”

Your head might be spinning a little bit after reading that. Let me simplify it for you…

A synapse is a structure that permits a neuron (or nerve cell) to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another cell.

So, not only does exercise create new neurons, but it also increases the number of informational pathways within our brain and enhances their ability to restructure themselves.

More importantly, this synaptic restructuring is indelibly linked to our ability to learn new skills and our capability to memorize information. In other words, regular exercise will improve your brain function and make you smarter.

Take All This Brain-Boosting Awesomeness To The Next Level

Exercise On The Brain - Next Level

I am not a supplement pusher by any stretch of the imagination. I have used myriad supplements in my now more than 15 years of training my body and can tell you that the vast majority of them aren’t worth the bottles they’re packaged in.

It’s unfortunate that it took me wasting thousands of my hard-earned dollars to finally come to this conclusion. I even became so frustrated with all the broken promises that I boycotted supplements altogether for more than a year.

Alas, after much trial and error – and countless hours of research – I have since landed on a select 5 supplements I consider to be essential for living with optimal health and performance. I will soon be releasing episode 3 of the Craig Leonard Fitness Podcast, where I’ll delve into each of these supplements in great detail, so I’m not going to hash through them all here.

However, one of my five essential supplements is omega-3. Omega-3 provides us with numerous tangible benefits. Not the least of which is its ability to aid in optimizing brain performance.

Low levels of omega-3 are attributed to contributing to the onset of a number of debilitating conditions: heart disease, arthritis, osteoporosis, ADHD, dementia and Alzheimer’s (to name just a few).

As it pertains to our brain health, omega-3 fatty acids are highly concentrated in the brain and are an important element in crucial functions such as memory efficiency, mental focus and overall cognitive performance.

To put it simply, the brain requires sufficient omega-3 intake into the body for it to function optimally. Unless you’re eating salmon and krill with every meal, you’re probably deficient and your brain is suffering as a result.

Keep in mind that omega-3 supplements aren’t all created equal. You want a brand that is tested for both purity and nutritional content by a 3rd party.

Fish oil supplements are notorious for containing mercury (very toxic). Some fish oil manufacturers have also been caught lying about the amount of EPA and/or DHA they provide per serving.

My point? You’re better off paying for a quality brand that is tested for purity so you know exactly what you’re putting into your body (this is the brand I use and recommend).

Einstein Derived His Genius From Exercise and Fish Oils

Exercise Effects The Brain - Einstein

Okay, you got me. I have no idea how often Einstein exercised or if he ever even exercised at all. For all I know he spent all of his waking hours locked in a lab writing complex differential equations, developing theorems and growing out that fabulous mustache.

While exercise (and supplementing with omega-3) may not turn us all into Nobel Prize winning physicists, the evidence clearly indicates that it will improve our mental acuity beyond what it would be if we instead opted for living a lifestyle that is completely devoid of physical activity.

As I hope is clear, exercise is a transformative agent that molds our being in ways that are beyond our comprehension.

This is yet one in a litany of examples of how powerful physical activity is in the lives of those who commit to making it a priority in their lives.

Exercise makes us stronger. It makes us leaner. It helps us perform better.  It keeps us free from sickness and disease. It builds our self-confidence.

On top of all that, it also enhances our cognitive abilities, which could even empower us to earn a higher salary.

What more could you possibly ask for? Photo Credits:

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