Exercise and learning go hand in hand. Physical activity not only facilitates the birth of new brain cells, it also produces smart chemicals that promote learning. And there are plenty of creative ways to change up your mind-body routine and get the needle moving in the right direction again.
From switching up your eating window to bolstering your supplement stack, you can work toward achieving balance through some simple-yet-effective methods. If you need to get your brain and body back on track, get ready to reignite your routine with fresh ideas that will motivate you to achieve all your goals.
The body was designed to be pushed, and when we push our bodies, we push our brains, too. Learning and memory evolved in concert with the motor functions that allowed our ancestors to track down food. As far as our brains are concerned, if we’re not moving, there’s no real need to learn anything.
In researching exercise and attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), we’ve learned that exercise improves learning on three levels: It optimizes your mindset, by improving alertness, attention, and motivation. It prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for learning new information. And it spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain related to memory and learning.
Several progressive schools have experimented with exercise to find out if working out before class boosts a child’s reading ability and her performance in other subjects. Guess what? It does.
We know now that the brain is flexible, or plastic, in the parlance of neuroscientists — more Play-Doh than porcelain. It is an adaptable organ that can be molded by input in much the same way as a muscle can be sculpted by lifting barbells. The more you use it, the stronger and more flexible it becomes.
WHY MIND-BODY BALANCE MATTERS
Stress is present in our lives on an everyday basis. Yet even though work, school, family and finances can weigh heavily on our minds, we must learn to deal with whatever challenges are on our proverbial plates. Instead of letting stress get the best of us, we should strive to take steps to manage it so we can feel and perform our best.
Of course, taking care of your mental health is only part of the mind-body equation. In addition to partaking in practices that benefit our brains, we must take care of our bodies. That includes fueling up with quality fats, steering clear of sugar, incorporating strength and cardio training and dedicating time to recovery.
A well-rounded routine that emphasizes both your mental and physical health will help bring balance and fulfillment to your life. And when you’re locked in, you will feel inspired to reap the rewards.
Exercise: A Drug for Your Brain?
It’s all about communication. The brain is made up of one hundred billion neurons of various types that chat with one another by way of hundreds of different chemicals, to govern our thoughts and actions. Each brain cell might receive input from a hundred thousand others before firing off its own signal. The junction between cell branches is the synapse, and this is where the rubber meets the road. The way it works is that an electrical signal shoots down the axon, the outgoing branch, until it reaches the synapse, where a neurotransmitter carries the message across the synaptic gap in chemical form. On the other side, at the dendrite, or the receiving branch, the neurotransmitter plugs into a receptor — like a key into a lock — and this opens ion channels in the cell membrane to turn the signal back into electricity.
About 80 percent of the signaling in the brain is carried out by two neurotransmitters that balance each other’s effect: Glutamate stirs up activity to begin the signaling cascade, and gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) clamps down on activity. When glutamate delivers a signal between two neurons that haven’t spoken before, the activity primes the pump. The more often the connection is activated, the stronger the attraction becomes. As the saying goes, neurons that fire together wire together. Which makes glutamate a crucial ingredient in learning.
Psychiatry focuses more on a group of neurotransmitters that act as regulators — of the signaling process and of everything else the brain does. These are serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. And although the neurons that produce them account for only one percent of the brain’s hundred billion cells, these neurotransmitters wield powerful influence. They might instruct a neuron to make more glutamate, or they might make the neuron more efficient or alter the sensitivity of its receptors. They can lower the “noise” in the brain, or, conversely, amplify those signals.
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.
The More Your Body Exercises, the Better Your Brain Functions
So how does the brain amp up its supply of BDNF? Exercise. In 1995, I was doing research for my book, A User’s Guide to the Brain, when I came across a one-page article in the journal Nature about exercise and BDNF in mice. There was scarcely more than a column of text, yet it said everything. According to the study’s author, Carl Cotman, director of the Institute for Brain Aging and Dementia at the University of California-Irvine, exercise seemed to elevate Miracle-Gro, or BDNF, throughout the brain.
By showing that exercise sparks the master molecule of the learning process, BDNF, Cotman nailed down a biological connection between movement and cognitive function. He set up an experiment to measure the levels of BDNF in the brains of mice that work out.
Unlike humans, rodents seem to enjoy physical activity, and Cotman’s mice ran several kilometers a night. When their brains were injected with a molecule that binds to BDNF and scanned, not only did the scans of the running rodents show an increase in BDNF over controls, but the farther each mouse ran, the higher the levels were.
As the stories of BDNF and exercise developed together, it became clear that the molecule was important not merely for the survival of neurons but also for their growth (sprouting new branches) and, thus, for learning. Cotman showed that exercise helps the brain learn.
“One of the prominent features of exercise, which is sometimes not appreciated in studies, is an improvement in the rate of learning, and I think that’s a cool take-home message,” Cotman says. “Because it suggests that, if you’re in good shape, you may be able to learn and function more efficiently.”
Indeed, in a 2007 study, German researchers found that people learn vocabulary words 20 percent faster following exercise than they did before exercise, and that the rate of learning correlated directly with levels of BDNF. Along with that, people with a gene variation that robs them of sufficient BDNF levels are more likely to have learning deficiencies. Without the so-called Miracle-Gro, the brain closes itself to the world.
Which isn’t to say that going for a run will turn you into a genius. “You can’t just inject BDNF and be smarter,” Cotman points out. “With learning, you have to respond to something in a different way. But the something has to be there.” And without question, what that something is matters.
16 WAYS TO REIGNITE YOUR ROUTINE
It may be convenient to follow a familiar routine, but that isn’t necessarily the best route to achieve balance. In fact, switching things up is a great way to rejuvenate your brain and challenge your body.
Whether you’re feeling a bit stuck or simply want to try something new, here are 16 easy ways to reignite your routine.
1. SET A SPECIFIC TIME FOR DAILY MEDITATION
Even if you have a packed schedule, make sure to carve out some time for yourself. Daily meditation can be a useful way to release stress and center your mind. Start your morning with a 10-minute session where you set your intentions for the day, or meditate after your workday ends to reflect and relax.
You can also incorporate meditation into your sleep routine. This will free your mind of unnecessary distractions and prepare your body for a well-deserved night’s rest.
2. ADD NOOTROPICS TO YOUR STACK
Nootropics are cognition- and mood-supporting supplements that benefit your brain. Including them in your stack can help support a balanced mind, and there are several ways to do so.
3. SET ONE SMALL, ATTAINABLE GOAL FOR THE MONTH
We all have goals we want to accomplish, but that doesn’t mean you have to take the all-in approach. Rather than trying to do too much too soon, start small by setting one attainable goal for the month. That could range from saving a specific amount of money to completing a DIY project to learning a new skill.
In fact, you could begin by incorporating any of the methods for reigniting your routine as an attainable monthly goal. Ultimately, you want to be realistic about your expectations so you can stay motivated every step of the way.
4. INCORPORATE AT LEAST THREE NEW MOVEMENTS INTO YOUR WORKOUT ROUTINE
It’s easy to keep doing the things you’re good at. But when your workout routine has become a bit stale, it’s time to incorporate new movements that’ll condition your body (and mind) to adapt.
That doesn’t mean you have to overhaul your entire program, however. Simply add three exercises to your regimen that you do not ordinarily practice to get started. From burpees to squat variations, there are countless ways to take your training in a new direction.
5. TRY INTERMITTENT FASTING—OR EXTEND YOUR FASTING WINDOW
One of the simplest ways to switch up your routine is to change when you eat. Intermittent fasting can help with weight management, fat burning and removing cellular waste through a process called autophagy. There’s plenty of flexibility with fasting, so feel free to experiment with different methods to find what works best for you.
If you’re already following a protocol, reignite your routine by extending your fasting window. In fact, combining longer fasting with keto can improve insulin sensitivity and speed up the autophagic process.
Reminder: If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, elderly, have a history of disordered eating, have a medical condition or are taking medication, speak with your healthcare practitioner about whether to engage in intermittent fasting.
6. SIGN UP FOR YOGA
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better activity for your mind and body than yoga. Not only does it focus on flexibility and mobility, but it also emphasizes freeing your mind of stressors and distractions. Practice your poses at home if it makes you feel more comfortable. Or, sign up for a class at a local studio will allow you to participate alongside others searching for balance.
7. PRACTICE BREATHING EXERCISES
When you think of exercise, you may think of pull-ups, push-ups and breaking a sweat. However, your mind-body routine should also include breathing exercises that can help you feel calmer and more centered.
What exactly should you practice? Pursed lip breathing is one of the most common, as it helps improve ventilation and promotes general relaxation. Or, try 4-7-8 breathing—which involves inhaling for 4 seconds, holding your breath for 7 and exhaling for 8—to bring your body back into balance.
8. FIT A 30-MINUTE WALK INTO YOUR DAY
Want to reignite your routine without investing a ton of time? Spend 2% of your day outside, on your feet, enjoying fresh air and sunshine. A 30-minute walk is a fantastic opportunity to put on a podcast or a motivational playlist and decompress.
If you take a daytime stroll, not only will you get your steps in, but you’ll also reap the benefits of light therapy, which can help your sleep, mood and energy. Of course, you could always save your 30-minute walk for the evening as a way to wind down after a long day at the office.
The Bottom Line
We all need a little push to step outside of our comfort zones. Embracing new ideas, from meditation to nootropics to journaling, can help you break through a plateau and put you on a better path to long-term success. Use the strategies outlined above to reignite your mundane routine and achieve mind-body motivation and balance.