"If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude." – Maya Angelou

Sculpting the Brain Through Exercise

Five reasons why remaining fit for life is worth the time and investment

It is impossible to look at a newborn baby, and not be filled with wonderment. I have yet to come across a person—young or old—whose face won’t break into a smile upon seeing or holding a (sleeping) baby. It can be any baby for that matter—they fill us with longing of when we were young and carefree ourselves, and is living proof of new beginnings, of hope and potential.

We celebrated our granddaughter’s first birthday yesterday. She was a fragile little person at birth, jaundiced, light years removed from the robust little girl in her party dress who was visiting us. She now ran through the house, exhilarated, laughing and bubbling and gesturing. For the past several months she has literally been mastering new skills every few minutes. Yesterday was a joyful reminder for us all of the endless possibilities that surround us.

A newborn baby has an estimated 100 billion brain cells (neurons) at birth. This number is likely less and closer to 86 billion cells.

    • Each one of these neurons can have up to 15,000 connections with other nerve cells.
    • Especially during the first two years of the child’s life, most of these neurons must complete the connections between the different parts of the brain and the body.
    • That’s why babies take weeks to months and longer to learn to do simple things like grabbing, sitting, walking and talking.
    • The circuits for listening are established at an earlier age, but obedience may take a lifetime to develop.

Brain growth factors are critical for development, and require a healthy and stable environment (love, care, affection, instruction) for the young brain (and person) to grow and develop.

    • The nerve signals in the newborn experience resistance where they connect to the next neuron for the first time.
    • With repetition, this resistance diminishes and nerve impulses travel faster
    • The absence of stimulation of the neurons lead to death and disappearance of these immature brain cells
    • It has long been believed that the ability of the brain to grow, undergo re-mapping and cortical reorganization (plasticity) ceases by late adolescence. It has been shown in the past decade and a half, in lab animals as well as in humans, to not be the case.

A new approach to stroke rehabilitation in adults with neurological deficits, is taking place.

It is now realized that stroke creates a situation similar to the newborn brain in as far as development and neuroplasticity is concerned.

    • Stroke is often seen in older, sedentary, obese, poorly controlled hypertension and untreated sleep apnea individuals.
    • The adult brain responds to stroke by increasing dendritic growth, forming new synapsis and reorganizing functional (cortical) brain maps and by up-regulating brain growth factors.
    • Enriched Environment Therapy improves recovery of stroke sufferers:
      1. Exercise
      2. Socialization
      3. Cognitive stimulation
      4. Reach-training (constraint-induced movement therapy)


Chronological aging is inevitable, but biological aging can be slowed and controlled due to the plasticity of the aging process, especially in the brain and central nervous system. It is becoming apparent that external manipulations such as exercise and periodic caloric restriction, counteract this age-related loss of plasticity of the older brain.

As with our big and strong skeletal muscles that “melt away” over time after 40 if we become less active and unfit, the same happens to the brain if we exercise less and stimulate the brain less.

Chronic low-grade inflammation, unrelated to infection, accelerates the aging of the body and the brain. Such as seen with:

    • Inactivity
    • Type 2 diabetes
    • Obesity
    • Untreated depression and anxiety
    • Untreated sleep apnea
    • Poorly controlled hypertension
    • Ischemic heart disease and high cholesterol

Exercise (and an enriched environment) leads to an increases in growth factors:

    • brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)
    • insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1)
    • fibroblast growth factor (FGF-2), which leads to neurogenesis
    • vascular endothelial growth factors (VEGF), which leads to angiogenesis (new blood vessel formation.)
    • This all is essential in neuroplasticity of the healthy (and damaged) brain.

With exercise, blood flow increases, brain growth factors increase and new blood vessels are formed in the brain, stem-cell division increase and it improves memory and brain function. In the 1980s and 1990s PET (Positron Emission Tomography) and more recently fMRI (functional MRI scanners) are able to demonstrate increases in the size and functionality of different parts of the brain in response to regular physical activity, especially complex aerobic exercise.

The mental benefits of lifelong fitness:

1. Effective treatment of anxiety and depression:

    • Acute anxiety is a natural response to a real danger or threat—it is the normal response of the body to prepare for a challenge—“fight or flight.”
    • But if we worry and panic when there is no real threat, and if it affects our ability to function every day, we have a problem.
    • Exercise can be used to effectively combat the symptoms of anxiety, and as your fitness levels increase—you chip away at the trait.
    • Short bursts of aerobic activity work immediately: equally fast as a drug.
    • Studies are demonstrating the effectiveness of exercise as first-line treatment (stand alone therapy) of major depression, or in combination with medications.
    • Exercise regulates all the neurotransmitters targeted by antidepressants, such as Dopamine and Serotonin.

2. Preventing stress from suffocating us:

    • If unrelenting chronic stress leads to chronic inflammation in the body, how is it possible for exercise, which is also stress, to be of benefit?
    • Acute exercise, in controlled intensity and duration, bolsters the body and mind.
    • The body adapts physiologically and psychologically to the higher intensity, but controlled stress, resetting its physiology to a new normal, if there are periods of rest in between.
    • Exercising in an “enriched” environment, will double these benefits. Participation in activities with friends in a safe and non intimidating atmosphere is crucial.
    • The socializing aspect of exercise is critical—especially as we grow older
    • Exercise give you an effective “tool”—to master, control and keep stress from suffocating you.
    • You are no longer “powerless”—it is an outlet to let off steam and “re-group.”

3. Bolsters mental toughness, motivation and willingness to tackle challenges:

    • Exercise improves alertness, attention and motivation.
    • Once small wins (small achievements) are witnessed, it will lead to positive reinforcement and encouragement.
    • If we look at the absolute fearlessness, passion and curiosity of any one or two-year old, we have to ask ourselves: when did we lose our passion? Our curiosity?
    • Fitness requires commitment and often hard work, but it pays off. It teaches one that our fears often limit us in what we deem possible.
    • Think of the preparations and training of the Navy SEALs—it prepares them for virtually “any” situation. We don’t need to go to that extreme, but let’s learn the principles.
    • Learn to say: “Yes, I can!”

4. Optimizing cognitive function: prevent mental decline and Dementia:

    • When the intensity and duration of stress (exercise) is controlled, it has a beneficial effect on the immune system. Exercise regulates the production of inflammation substrates (cytokines, such as Interleukin 1 & 6 and Tumor necrosis factor.)
    • In the body, and in the brain in particular, reactive oxygen species (ROS) cause oxidative damage to brain cell functioning, new neuron formation and signaling. Exercise modulates the extent of the oxidative damage.
    • Even a shorter term of exercise of only three months showed an increase in brain blood flow, cognitive function (memory, executive function) and cardiovascular fitness.
    • Especially the hippocampal area of the brain showed an increase in blood flow, and hence increase in mass through new neuron formation and increases in synaptic connections. (Sculpting of brain.)
    • If people living in the world’s five Blue Zones, where many reach the age of a 100, don’t shuffle around with a walker with their minds missing, we should learn from them. The are mindful what they put in their mouths, they have learned to control their stress, they don’t sit the whole day and they nurture friendships and social interaction.
    • The more complex the physical activity is, such as dancing, the more are the benefits seen in the brain. Especially, as seen in older individuals. Dancing has a triple benefit: aerobic activity, complex activity which sprouts more dendritic connections between more parts of the brain, plus the vital societal interaction in an atmosphere of enjoyment and exhilaration.
    • Regular mental exercises are vital: Play chess daily. Learn a new language.

5. Longevity, lifelong learning and quality of life:

    • Telomeres are specialized protein structures that protect the ends of chromosomes from degradation
    • Telomere length play a vital role in longevity through the association of an increase in age-related chronic diseases. The implication is: optimum telomere length is an indication of a well functioning immune system, which is associated with an increase in lifespan
    • Regular physical exercise (especially acute aerobic), has the ability to increase telomere lengths of white blood cells (neutrophils.)
    • If you interview any octogenarian or nonagenarian who still works, and have all their functions, they will tell you: “I learn something new every day.” Read every day.
    • Never lose your curiosity. Remain fascinated by life and by people
    • Remain involved. Remain fit, really fit, not only busy. You’ll be able to continue to have an impact on the world around you.
    • You have a whole life of experiences in you. By staying in shape you can share it—the process will enrich your life and improve its quality and those you come in contact with.

The next time we hold a newborn baby or observe a young child running with abandon, let’s reignite our own dreams. Those little ones are indeed living proof of new beginnings, of hope and potential.

It is never too late. You are never too old to start again.

Let’s make the conscious decision to regain our passion, and our health. Being busy is good, but let’s take the next step and become fit. It is not only for athletes. It is not only for fanatics. And you don’t need to take out a second mortgage to become fitter and stronger and live a purposeful life.

Let’s bolster our bodies and our minds. Who knows, by doing that, we may just inspire and impact that little one, running around us in circles.

By getting in shape, you may just be around for when that baby grows up!

Question: Are there OTHER benefits I didn’t list? Please feel free to comment.

    1. Chilton W.L. et al. Acute Exercise Leads to Regulation of Telomere-Associated Genes and MicroRNA Expression in Immune Cells. PLoS One. 2014; 9(4): e92088. 
    2. Radak Z. et al. Physical exercise, reactive oxygen species and neuroprotection. Free Radic Biol Med. 2016 
    3. Chapman S.B. et al. Shorter term aerobic exercise improves brain, cognition, and cardiovascular fitness in aging. Front. Aging Neurosci., Nov 12, 2013 
    4. The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. John J. Ratey & Eric Hagerman. 2008. ISBN: 978-0-316-11351-9
    5. The Mind and The Brain. Neuroplasticity and the power of mental force. Jeffrey M. Schwartz & Sharon Begley. 2002. Harper Perennial. ISBN: 978-0-06-039355-7
    6. Bouchard J. et al. Aging and brain rejuvenation as systemic events. Journal of Neurochemistry: Vol. 132, 1, 5-19, Jan 2015 
    7. Corbett D, et al. How can you mend a broken brain? – Neurorestorative approaches to stroke recovery. Cerebrovasc Dis 2014:38:233-239 

© 2016 All rights reserved.

Personal image.

Get the prequel to my book Be Silent 

A calling can consume. It is one thing for a driven preacher to turn big game hunter. It’s an entirely different narrative when a wounded 2,200-pound bull is turned into a killing machine . . . 

Your FREE book is waiting!

(What are YOU waiting for?)

Name Required field!
Email* Required field!


Add Comment

View Details
Sold Out