To understand the injustice that has been done to exercise, let’s pretend we’re back in 1995 and Nintendo is advertising the Nintendo 64. When marketing, they talk solely about the technical aspects of the machine and how it has a 93.7 megahertz processor compared to the Super Nintendo’s measly 3.56 megahertz processor. The N64 flops and the entire marketing team is fired since they failed to promote any relevant information like the actual nature of the new games or even that an entire D was added, making the games 3D instead of 2D.
Of course in reality, the Nintendo 64 did quite well. This hypothetical marketing strategy is just a parallel to the poor marketing strategy for exercise. The sales points of exercise up until now were that it’s good for the heart and it will make you lose weight. First off, while these are good benefits, they’re not nearly as compelling as the other benefits of exercise. “Good for the heart” is a vague notion that’s encouraging only if you happen to be older and worried about a heart attack. Then, data is showing that exercise isn’t even that effective for losing weight. A review of exercise intervention studies published in 2001 by Queen’s University in Canada found that after 20 weeks, “the amount of exercise energy expenditure had no correlation with weight loss“
I’m not saying that exercise doesn’t affect your body. The right kind of exercise increases muscle mass and improves your insulin sensitivity, setting you up to have a healthier body composition. However, if you begin exercising without managing other factors like diet, you may be very discouraged by poor weight loss results.
Pediatric Endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig said at UCSF Osher Mini Medical School for the Public in 2013:
“Does exercise work? So, here are studies of exercise – as you can see when compared with no treatment, exercise resulted in very small weight loss across the board. Exercise does not cause weight loss. What does exercise do? It causes muscle gain. Muscle have mitochondria, mitochondria burn energy. So, exercise is the single best thing you can do for yourself, but if you think it’s gonna show up on the scale, think again.”
In a September 2016 issue of TIME magazine, Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky said that “If there were a drug that could do for human health everything that exercise can, it would likely be the most valuable pharmaceutical ever developed.”
To understand what makes exercise so great, we need to understand how it affects the brain. First off, what is the brain for? Some may say “we have brains to think! To create art and to come up with creative solutions to complex problems!” but Neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert argues that is not the case.
As Daniel Wolpert said in his TED talk:
“ We have a brain for one reason and one reason only and that’s to produce adaptable and complex movement. There is no other reason to have a brain.”
To illustrate this, Daniel uses the example of a sea squirt. Early in its life, the sea squirt has a nervous system. It will use this nervous system to move around and find a suitable rock to attach itself to, then it will spend the rest of its life there. At that point, movement is no longer a necessity for survival, so the very first thing the sea squirt does is it digests its brain for energy.
A more relatable example is the Koala. The Koala has adapted its digestive system to derive all the energy it needs from eucalyptus leaves. It really doesn’t need to move that much as it can just sit in the tree, eat, and watch the world go by. Earlier in the Koala’s evolution, it used to have a much bigger brain. However, once its diet became less diverse and required less movement to survive, its brain shrunk. Less movement meant less brain was necessary. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s the same as not wasting your money on a 4000 dollar laptop if all you need to do is run some simple software like your web browser and email client.
What research on exercise is suggesting, and a better understanding of neurochemical mechanisms is proving, is that there is a very powerful connection between the brain and movement. A big brain is necessary to facilitate complex movements, and executing such movements and getting your heart rate up bolsters your brain power.
Exercise has been shown to help people learn much more efficiently, better deal with stress, and drastically reduce anxiety. It improves mood to the point of lifting people people out of depression, and it strengthens focus to the point that some ADHD patients elect to throw out their prescriptions. And that’s not even the full list.
The California Department of Education has consistently shown that students with higher fitness scores have higher test scores. Former President Ma of Taiwan increased the occurrence of Physical Education in schools nationwide from twice a week to three times a week for this reason. The minister of education, science and technology in South Korea extended the school day by 1 hour to add more time for PE and sports. This decision was made after reading Dr. John Ratey’s book “SPARK” which is all about the brain benefits of exercising.
The reason the Taiwanese and South Korean school systems don’t just have students study for another hour is because exercise actually primes the brain to learn faster. A 2007 study showed that subjects who did high intensity exercise beforehand could learn vocabulary words 20% faster than those who remained sedentary.
The key to this phenomenon is a protein called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, or BDNF for short. In order to learn something, the brain actually needs to grow and modify its cellular infrastructure to allow neurons to fire more easily. Researchers found that “if they sprinkled BDNF onto neurons in a petri dish, the cells automatically sprouted new branches, producing the same structural growth required for learning.” This impressive result had John Ratey nickname BDNF the “Miracle-Gro for the brain.”
“BDNF improves the function of neurons, encourages their growth, and strengthens and protects them against the natural process of cell death. …BDNF is a crucial biological link between thought, emotions and movement.”
A 2013 study in the journal of sports science and medicine showed that just 20 to 40 minutes of aerobic exercise increased BDNF in the blood by 32%. Rather than stocking up on coffee before you sit down to study, you might want to try jogging around the block instead.
One way to understand why exercise would trigger your brain to initiate “learning mode” like this is to think of your body as the world’s most intricate “IF THEN” system. Your body has triggers for almost every physiological process. For example, IF cold THEN shiver. IF hot THEN sweat. Most of your body’s physiological expressions can’t be induced just by force of will, certain triggers must be present. [“Alexa, increase my testosterone by 50%.” “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” ] By understanding which physiological triggers influence which physiological expressions, we can start getting our brains to do what we want.
The reason exercise is a key trigger for all kinds of positive effects in the brain, particularly learning, is because movement signals to the brain that something important is happening. Maybe not in modern times, but originally, when we were moving, it was for the sake of survival. You move to escape a predator, to forage for food, to hunt, et cetera. While moving, it’s in your best interest to learn the lay of the land so you don’t get lost and can locate forageable food again. You had better remember how an attacking animal moves and what path was most efficient to escape so you can prevent yourself from becoming a carcass next time. When you’re loafing around, you’re not convincing your brain that learning is necessary. From your brain’s perspective, being sedentary means you’re safe, nothing important is happening, and it’s time to rest.
When you think of Arnold Schwarzenegger, you might not associate him with intelligence. You might say he talks funny, and that his success only comes from him being a novelty when musclebound guys were rare. However, no matter how much attention your arms get you, you’ll need a lot of motivation, learning capacity, and focus to become a bodybuilder, businessman, actor, investor, and politician. By the way it wasn’t his physique that made him rich, he became a millionaire through real estate before he even began acting. Oh and all this while he was speaking in his second language.
There’s a good chance that Arnold can thank his fitness for such an impressive display of focus and motivation. We owe our motivations and entire ‘will to live’ to the brain’s reward center. With almost any activity we choose to do, we do it because we expect some sort of reward. We strive for success in life because we expect the reward of fulfillment, we eat candy bars for the rewarding taste and we do taxes for the reward of not getting audited by the IRS. Without reward, our brains don’t have much reason to do anything.
An anti-obesity drug called Rimonabant was a tragic example of this. Rimonabant is an endocannabinoid antagonist- it’s an “anti-marijuana” medicine, which also means it’s “anti-munchies” medicine. It gets you to stop eating by inhibiting the sense of reward from food, and unfortunately everything else. 20 percent of users experienced serious depression and there were several suicides. Kill the reward system and you just might want to kill yourself.
Dopamine is a key player in the reward center. Dopamine is all about motivation and attention, and is responsible for that feeling of satisfaction when we accomplish something. It makes you want to do things, and reassures you that that thing was worth doing.
So if your dopamine is not working properly, you can find it hard to get things done, because you’re not getting enough fulfillment to justify doing them. One of the ways the ADHD drug adderall works is by mimicking the action of dopamine in the reward center of the brain. Adderall users can get so focused on mundane tasks and blast through their to-do lists because everything becomes interesting. But you don’t have to go the pharmacy to get your reward center going. Studies show that exercise boosts motivation by increasing dopamine storage and triggering the creation of dopamine receptors in the reward center. Exercise won’t have you staying up all night in a studying frenzy like adderall, but it will give you more willpower and focus to do those little things that don’t usually feel rewarding.
Aside from its positive effects on dopamine, exercise also elevates levels of norepinephrine and serotonin. When these three neurotransmitters are in deficit, people become depressed.
In a 1999 study, James Blumenthal compared exercise to the anti-depressant Zoloft in a 16 week trial. They found that just thirty minutes of jogging, three times a week was just as effective as Zoloft. But that’s only looking at depression. A 2006 study of over 19,000 Dutch twins and their families showed that exercisers were less depressed, less anxious, more socially outgoing and less neurotic. I guess it wasn’t hyperbole when Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky said that if exercise were a drug, it would be the most valuable one ever developed.
The last point about exercise and the brain has to do with stress. Let’s take a look at the original stress scenario: You’re chilling out eating berries or whatever and then you see a tiger advancing towards you. Your fight or flight response switches on, the pituitary gland secretes adrenocorticotropic hormone, cortisol is released, your heart rate shoots up, your digestion turns off and you really start moving. You will exert an immense amount of effort, after a couple minutes you will come to rest, then your physiological processes will calm down, and your cortisol will quickly drop and stay down for the rest of the day.
This is another example of the body’s IF THEN sequencing: IF See tiger, THEN jack up cortisol. After that, it becomes: IF You have exerted sufficient effort THEN lower cortisol levels. Unfortunately for most people they activate the first part of this a lot, but they don’t activate the second part. Which means for most of the day, you’re sitting around with a bunch of cortisol in your system.
We’ve heard that stress makes you fat, and indeed it does. Research shows that cortisol specifically increases the accumulation visceral fat, which is linked to cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome. But there’s a much more important area affected by stress. Brain imaging has shown that people with frequently high cortisol levels degrade their brain tissue much faster than normal. As cortisol rises, electrical signals in your hippocampus deteriorate. The hippocampus is associated with learning, memories, and of course stress control. However, by exercising in the morning, you can dial down your cortisol levels and keep them down the rest of the day. Frequent exercise allows your body to become much better at reacting to stress.
I mentioned that exercise is as good as medication for treating some issues, but exercise isn’t just for correcting health. Even if you are confident that you feel great, have good focus, and you are happy with your ability to learn new things, you could still improve all of these areas.
If you’ve replaced say your headphones recently, you probably were satisfied with the ones you had… until you tried better ones and thought “Whoa! I could have been hearing in high quality this whole time!” Then those new headphones become your new standard. If you later put on your old headphones, you think “God these sound like crap.” Starting an exercise routine feels like putting on those new headphones.
When someone mentions they don’t have time for 20 minutes of exercise in the morning, it reminds me of one of my favorite Brian Regan skits about eyeglasses:
“How can instantly improved vision not be at the top of your to do list? ‘Ah I’ll see tomorrow. I don’t- I don’t have time! I don’t have time. To see clearly. No. ”
Sometime about two years ago, I was dissatisfied with my productivity and thought I had a touch of ADHD, so I got a prescription for modafinil. Modafinil has been compared to the magical productivity pill NZT in the movie “limitless”. Some users said colors look brighter and that they instantly felt “switched on.” For me, not so much. There was never a particularly striking contrast in how I felt on modafinil, just at some point during the day, I would look back and think “Wow I really got a lot done today.” I stopped taking modafinil after just a few weeks of trying it as I didn’t like the idea of relying on something for productivity. Now that I’ve finally made a habit of consistently exercising first thing every morning, I have a lot of those moments where I look back and say “Wow I really got a lot done.” But, any time I skip the exercise, it feels like I’ve put my shitty old headphones back on.