First, your mom
When you were a kid, did your mom ever tell you to be weary of strangers? Mine did. In particular, she often told me to be careful of creepy strangers who hand drugs to children outside of school.
In hindsight, I cannot help but wonder: Who were those strangers anyway? Has anyone ever seen one? Why were they giving out drugs for free? Are they still around? I’m asking for a friend.
Eventually, I got tired of wondering and decided to take matters into my own hands. I decided to become one of them. If anyone was going to give drugs to strangers, it was going to be me. That’s right, I am a stranger about to offer you a drug. But not just any drug, I’m here to tell you about a very particular one that I promise will change your life.
Before you ask: No, it wasn’t developed by scavenging abandoned pharmacies in the slum of Yekaterinburg. Yes, it has been thoroughly tested and is FDA approved.
Moving on, let’s take a look at what this drug can do for you. Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, Professor of Medicine at McMaster University in Canada, called it “the most valuable pharmaceutical ever developed”. He came to that conclusion after carrying out hundreds of meticulous experiments.
For example, he tested the drug on mice who had a terrible genetic disease that caused them to die prematurely. Over the course of five months, the mice who had taken the drug became nearly indistinguishable from other healthy mice. They were just as healthy. Those who did not, however, were shaking in a corner, nearing death: their hearing had become terrible, their fur had fallen out and their muscles shriveled.
Tests are not only limited to rodents though. Even in humans, study after study, the drug has seen outstanding results. Those who have been subject to it increased their ability to memorize new information by upwards of 20%. Some ADHD patients improved their focus so much that they allegedly threw out their previous prescription. Others drastically reduced their anxiety and improved their self-esteem. Some subjects have even entirely cured their clinical depression.
If you have seen the movie Limitless starring Bradley Cooper, this drug is the closest thing we have to NZT-48. It boosts concentration. It skyrockets energy levels. It makes you feel invincible.
But there is a catch.
Of course, there is a catch. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows.
This drug does not come in the form of pill, tablet or injection. It comes in the form of movement. This drug is exercise. Yeah, I may have slightly manipulated Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky’s quote. Here is the full version he gave to Time magazine:
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.Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky’s, Time
Before you click away, I am sorry I betrayed our trust. But I had to. It’s worth it, trust me.
By the end of the article, I hope I will have properly shared why exercise is, simply put, the single best thing you can do for yourself.
Why do you have a brain? Have you ever asked yourself that question? No, you haven’t. Because you are ungrateful, and you take it for granted.
Not all complex organisms have a brain. Plants, trees, fungi. We consider these to be alive, but there is clearly a difference between them and you. You might say the difference between us is the fact that we have a brain. We can produce complex and creative thoughts. We can make calculations and predictions about the future. We can fall in love and question whether we actually have a brain or not all over again.
But you’d be wrong. Those are consequences of having a brain. None explain why we have one in the first place.
Let’s step back and take a look at this from a very simple perspective. Let’s take our most basic living features and compare them to those of an organism that has no brain. There are seven characteristics most living things share. You might have studied this in biology class:
1. Respiration: a chemical
reaction that helps release energy
2. Sensitivity: the capacity to detect changes in the surroundings
3. Growth: the capacity for physical change and development
4. Reproduction: duh
5. Excretion: getting rid of waste
6. Nutrition: the absorption and use of nutrients
7. Movement: the capacity to maneuver in space
When it comes to these variables, are there any major differences between you and, for example, a petunia? Let’s go through the list.
1. Respiration: Both you and
a petunia can breathe, so it’s not that.
2. Sensitivity: You are both sensible to external conditions, so it can’t be that either.
3. Growth: You two undergo physical changes.
4. Reproduction: You can both reproduce (at least the successful bunch).
5. Excretion: A petunia gets rid of CO2; you get rid of #1 and #2.
6. Nutrition: You can both absorb nutrients, though from different sources.
(Who would have thought the battle between you and a petunia would be this close? Thank God you have an ace up your sleeve)
7. Movement: You can move, and a petunia can’t.
Movement is why you have a brain. Mother nature put the most sophisticated creation known to Man between your ears not so you could paint the ceilings of the Sixteenth Chapel, but so you could climb to the top of the scaffolding in the first place. I know this sounds preposterous but listen up. Famous neurophysiologist Rodolfo Llinás defended this position in his 2002 book I of the Vortex, in which he wrote:
That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internalization of movement.Rodolfo Llinás, I of the Vortex
More recently, neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert said the same thing in his Ted Talk, just a little more straight-forward:
If you think about this question for any length of time, it’s blindly obvious why we have a brain. We have a brain for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to produce adaptable and complex movements. There is no other reason to have a brain.Daniel Wolpert, Ted
In order to drive the point home, Daniel gives the example of sea squirts. A sea squirt is a marine animal with a very simple body. It has a brain, it has a nervous system, and it can swim around the ocean when it is young… but only when it is young. After sea squirts reach a certain age, they find a rock to implant themselves into. The rock becomes their new house – they stick onto it and never leave it again. This has one very important implication: after finding a home, the sea squirt does not need to move anymore. So, what does it do? It digests its own brain for energy.
In that situation, eating your brain is a no-brainer (ha). Brains require tons of energy to keep themselves running. If you’re not using it – why keep it around? For the average human, their brain represents about 2% of their total body weight but uses around 20% of the total calorie intake.
So, next time you spend hours glued to your sofa or office chair, remember the teachings of the humble sea squirt glued to its rock. If you are not going to use your brain for what it was always meant to do, perhaps you would be better off having it for dinner.
One of the widespread beliefs our society has taken for granted is that there is a gap between brain and body. That’s why some things are said to be good for the brain (reading, writing, solving problems, etc.) and some for the body (running, doing push-ups, squatting, and the like).
This is wrong. Not just a little – it’s very wrong. It seems we have forgotten this somewhere along the way. The more our civilization has developed, the more we have lost touch with our physical self. More than two thousand years ago, Plato said:
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
Your brain and body are one and the same. Changes in your thinking will affect your physiology. Changes in your physiology will affect your thinking. There are many examples of this, and perhaps the most illustrating one is the case of the gut microbiome (that is, how millions of bacteria in your gut can literally determine your personality). However, for the sake of keeping this short(ish), we will focus on the incredible effects of physical movement on the brain, for now.
If this still does not convince you, I invite you to think of movement in a broader sense. For humans, movement is simply muscle contraction, but it also happens to be the only way you have to communicate with your environment. Talking, writing, typing, touching, grabbing, fleeing, lifting, smiling, looking… all of these actions allow you to interact with what is around you, and they are all driven by complex muscle contractions.
What is beautiful about exercise is that, even if only for a brief moment, you prioritize movement above everything else. You try to become movement – and the better you get at training, the more you manage to do so. Your overly civilized mental chatter goes quiet. You get in touch with a very primal layer of your identity. Ironically, this regression to a more animal behavior has the potential to develop your brain more than a bunch of fancy cognitive exercises. Consider this:
A couple of years ago, Google created a machine that taught itself how to play chess. They never explained any moves or techniques to it. They simply told the AI what the rules of chess were and made it play games. Only 4 hours later, it was beating world champions, game after game. In less than a day, it achieved superhuman levels of ability. Computers are amazing at these sorts of tasks because their brute processing power dwarfs ours.
But have you ever noticed how much machines suck at moving? We have poured millions and millions of dollars into making machines learn how to move through space, and we are years away from a human-like level of complexity and adaptability. The best we have right now is Boston Dynamics and – as impressive as their technology is – their robots can barely climb a flight of stairs without looking like they are overthinking every step. There is a huge gap between how good our software programs are when running in a computer, and how bad our software is when integrated with robotics. AI beating our best chess players is reality, but AI beating our best soccer players is science fiction.
Here’s why this matters: movement is your competitive advantage. No machine can even come close to your ability to adapt, play, improvise, and express yourself through movement. Does that not say a lot about how beautifully complex we are? When you engage in movement, you are developing your brain and body simultaneously. I don’t care if you decide to lift weights, jog, swim, train calisthenics or simply go for a walk – you should do these things because you were built to do them. As Movement teacher and pioneer Ido Portal said:
The best reason to move is “because you can”.Ido Portal
Have you ever met a “used to” person?
- I used to be so popular.
- I used to be an amazing runner.
- I used to play the piano.
- I used to read a lot.
I used to, I used to, I used to. Nobody likes these people. Nobody likes being these people (though we all are to some degree). It is such a common phenomenon that the internet gave it a name. According to the Urban Dictionary, it goes something like this:
“You peaked in high school” can be used to describe people that routinely bring up high school when they are well into their 30’s, because they haven’t had a single exciting or interesting experience since their senior year.Urban Dictionary
Well, I’m afraid I have some news for you. The latest research just came in, and it shows that you too peaked in high school.
According to a 2015 study of almost 49.000 people that analyzed cognitive abilities throughout life spans, your brain reaches its peak performance when you get to the age of about 18. Yes, 18. It’s all downhill from there.
It is no secret that the human brain can change over time. We know for certain that the brain of babies and kids go through incredible growth spurs. They become increasingly sophisticated. Think about it, our human brain is so unbelievably complex that it takes almost two decades for it to be considered “independent”. This is unthinkable for any other species on the planet. Most animals learn how to walk in a few hours, run in a few days, hunt in a few months, and be independent in a few years or less. Not us. We can’t even leave a baby unattended for just 5 minutes because they are entirely at the mercy of what happens around them. Babies are the epitome of innocence, helplessness and vulnerability.
But changes in the brain don’t stop there. Up until the 1970’s and 80’s, it was believed that most of the brain was fixed after puberty. Like a ceramic jar, it was molded at first and then popped into the oven. Once it was out, you were stuck with your piece of pottery – whether you liked it or not. In the last thirty years though, a lot of very smart science guys have widely accepted that our brains change continuously until we die. Your brain can physically grow or lose grey and white matter. This phenomenon is known as neuroplasticity. In simple terms: your cerebrum is not a ceramic jar; it is more like a bunch of Play-Doh.
But just as your brain goes through incredible development when you are young, it also goes through a constant decline the older you get. Your memory gets worse, your processing speed slows down and your learning capacity becomes less impressive. There are many reasons for this, but a crucial part of the equation is how much of your brain actually shrinks. This is no joke. Neurodegenerative diseases (like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or dementia) can speed up the process tremendously, but even a healthy adult brain atrophies over time. It is estimated that by the time you reach the age of 90, your brain will be around 15-20% smaller than it was when you were young.
I know this is depressing, but it’s not all bad news. It’s time for our magical drug to step in. The research John Ratey (clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School) explained in his brilliant book Spark will lighten up your day.
Smart as a jock
Welcome to Naperville, Illinois.
This seemingly normal town near Chicago was home to one of the most revolutionary discoveries in modern education.
Gym teachers at one of the high schools in Naperville decided to get together and come up with a new physical education plan. Just as in other schools, P.E. class was all about playing sports: basketball, volleyball, football, etc. Alas, as we all know, this causes some more naturally gifted students to excel in this class, and some others to not be interested in playing at all. Students get graded on skill, not on effort. It has always been like this.
But not anymore. Naperville teachers decided to turn the script upside down and to start testing students for fitness, not sports. They introduced a new plan called Zero Hour. Essentially, Zero Hour was an experiment. Gym class went from being taught once a week to every single morning – right before tough subjects like math and science. They also tailored the class so that each student would compete only against his or herself. For example, they made students run around the track wearing heart rate monitors. That way, they could grade the performance not based on how long it took them to run X number of miles, but on how well they managed to maintain their heart rate within a specific range.
These simple changes turned the 19.000 participants into the fittest and smartest students in the nation. That’s right, smartest too.
Every four years since 1995, students around the world take a test known as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (or TIMSS for short). As you can probably guess, it tests students in those subjects and compares the result across countries. On average, the US has done quite poorly, usually ranking 18th in science and 19th in math. And that’s considering most schools only present their best and brightest to the test.
But what about Naperville? Well, almost 100% of students took the test. They ranked 1st in the world in science and 6th in mathematics.
First in the world in science. Ahead of everyone else. Sixth in mathematics, behind only the Eastern giants (Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan). Let that sink in. Every year since, the students from Naperville have consistently ranked in the US’s top 10 high schools.
Now, I know, I know. You can make the case that Naperville was already quite privileged. The town is demographically gifted and has low levels of poverty. This is all true. But the results remain, particularly when you consider that Naperville’s Central High School spends almost half the amount of money per student than other top tier high schools in the United States. Combine that with the fact that, as mentioned, almost all of its students took the test, and the evidence is too compelling to ignore.
The P.E. teachers who took Naperville’s students from above average to world leaders knew that very well. They even went as far as saying:
In our department we create the brain cells. It’s up to the other teachers to fill themNaperville’s Central High School P.E. Teachers
Self-assured? Perhaps. But boy were they onto something.
I love tongue twisters.
They challenge the brain, they challenge the tongue, they’re very simple learning tools. Here are some of my favorites; try to repeat them fast:
- I slit a sheet, a sheet I slit; and on a slitted sheet I sit.
- Irish wristwatch, Irish wristwatch, Irish wristwatch.
- Brain-derived neurotrophic factor.
The latter has to be the best one. After all, it’s the only one that will literally create new neurons in your brain. Let’s talk science.
Your brain is basically laid out like a bunch of islands. Let’s say you live in a beautiful archipelago and want to go from Island A to Island B. You would get in your car, drive to the port, take a boat to the other side and drive off again. It’s the same thing for your brain. In order for a message to travel through different regions of your brain, something like this happens:
- First, an electric signal (car) drives along neurons (highways).
- Eventually it reaches a gap between neurons, known as a synapse (sea). Electricity can’t swim through that gap, so your brain uses chemicals known as neurotransmitters (boats) to carry the message to the other side.
- Once there, the chemicals deliver the information, and off goes the electric signal (car) again.
These neurotransmitters are fundamental to understanding the brain. They explain changes in mood, depression, motivation… you name it. You don’t want to mess with these fellas. You’d probably want to do the opposite and make their job as easy and effective as possible. But how exactly?
Imagine you want to make the trip between Island A and Island B the quickest and most effective journey possible – without tampering with the vehicles. What would you do? It seems to me like you have two options: i) making your highways better, and ii) making your ports better. I mean, if your roads are awesome, you can take a lot more traffic; and if your ports are ready to handle many boats, more effective trading unfolds.
So how do you do that? You find yourself some experienced engineers.
Say hello to neurotrophins. They don’t carry out signals, they build the ways through which signals are carried out. You can think of neurotrophins as brain builders. They patch up your weak neurons, they make new strong ones, and they help the flow of chemicals be as efficient as possible. Among the crew of neurotrophins, one in particular is the most badass. It’s such an incredible builder that it has fascinated scientists for the past 30 years. Even its name is daunting: they call it Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor (or BDNF if you two are close). Remember our tongue twister? That’s the one.
It’s hard to overstate how extraordinary BDNF is. Since it’s discovery in the 90’s, scientists have called it “the master molecule of the learning process” or “the Miracle-Gro for the brain”. Perhaps the biggest discovery of all happened in 1995 by the hand of Carl Cotman, director of the Institute for Brain Aging and Dementia at the University of California.
Carl knew exercise increased BDNF production, but he did not know where all that BDNF goodness went in the brain. He decided to put this to the test. Him and his team made different groups of mice run for different periods of time. They quickly realized that the more effort the mice put in, the more BDNF was created. Now all that was left to do was find out where it all went.
Here is where their brilliant scientific minds were blown. They had all assumed that the new BDNF would help reinforce those areas of the brain linked to movement (because, you know, the mice were moving). Nope. The majority of BDNF was found in the hippocampus – that is, the brain’s memory center. They were so confused that they repeated the test again… and found the same results. Without really wanting to do so, Cotman had found a direct biological link between movement and cognitive function. Exercise was not just a tool to stay fit – it was a tool to stay smart. John Ratey sure wasn’t joking when he said:
The brain circuits that our ancient ancestors used to start a fire are the same ones we use today to learn French.John Ratey, Spark
Phew. That’s a lot of science talk… what exactly do we do with it?
Well, it’s hard to tell. Scientific experiments are a pain in the ass to conduct. So many variables have to be considered that it’s impossible for us to know which type of exercise is king. Most studies right now are related to cardiovascular exercise simply because it is the easiest to measure in labs. It is much more consistent than, let’s say, a yoga practice. We now know that the correlation between cardio and brain development is undeniable. Regular cardio will increase BDNF levels in your brain by 20-30%, and improve your memory, focus and mood dramatically.
But what about other forms of exercise?
We also know that acrobatics training increased BDNF in the cerebellum of mice (a region of the brain) by 35%, whereas cardio never did there. We could test for a lot of different exercise practices and we would find a lot of different results. What’s important here is that it seems that the results are complementary – not mutually exclusive.
By this point I imagine you are biting your nails and have about a million questions.
What type of exercise should I do then? How many times per week? How the hell did they train mice in acrobatics?You, now
I have some good news and some bad ones.
Bad news first: we have no idea what exact protocol we should follow. We don’t know the specifics. We don’t know how to maximize the brain benefits of exercise. We don’t know a lot of stuff. It’s just way too complicated and would depend entirely on each individual.
The good news is, our ignorance leaves room for a lot of freedom. You can pick whichever practice you like and be certain that it will do wonders for your brain. Even if it isn’t the best practice (on paper), you will get amazing results if you follow these criteria:
- You put movement at the forefront of the practice.
- You challenge your muscular and cardiovascular limits.
- You have fun in the process.
Weightlifting. Yoga. Running. Parkour. Dancing. HIIT… I don’t care. Pick one, two or three that you really enjoy, get good at them, inform yourself, have common sense and don’t be afraid to try new ones out. Getting out of your comfort zone is half of the learning process.
If you are a beginner, start small. It is better to build a consistent habit that lasts over time, than it is to go all-in for two weeks and then quit. If you are having trouble staying consistent, try building an environment that supports your habits. If nothing seems to work, then you probably need to sit down and write why you want to exercise, and then find a practice that you find genuinely interesting, challenging and enjoyable. Try to prioritize movement 3-4 times per week, for 30-45 minutes of intense activity, as a start. Build it up from there.
Remember, this is not supposed to be a chore. This is not just a box in your to-do list. This is you being human. You were never meant to sit on a chair all day. You were meant to do the opposite. Your brain was molded around that fact. You are meant to push, pull, hang, sprint, and climb. You are meant to play, dance, twist, flip and jump. You are meant to move, for God’s sake. Move! Not because you want to look fit, not because you want to lose weight fast. Do it for something greater. To explore the landscape of your limits, to get in touch your inner child, to lose yourself in experience, to develop passions and to connect with other people.
Move because there is nothing more beautiful than setting your sights on your ideal self.