Trick Your Brain Into Better Workout

Need help pushing your way out the door to run? Swish some Gatorade and spit it out in the sink.

That’s a taste of the unconventional advice in the new fitness books of the year exploring the role of the brain in training and improving cognitive function and mental health through exercise. Several books examine not only how movement affects the brain, but also how the brain affects movement, and offer ideas on mindfulness during exercise or tricks to short-circuit the brain’s barriers to exercise. (The Gatorade swish, it is theorized in one book, leads the brain to believe that the system gets a boost of energy from a sugary drink, even when it isn’t.)

“We forget that the body is connected to the brain,” says Caroline Williams, author of the recently published “Move: How the New Science of Body Movement Can Set Your Mind Free”. “We can use our body as a tool to influence our thinking and feeling, like a hotline to the mind.”


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In her new book “52 Ways to Walk: The Surprising Science of Walking for Wellness and Joy, One Week at a Time”, Annabel Streets deals with the boredom that could creep into a well-worn fitness routine. Fancy tips to keep things interesting include walking backwards a bit or turning your head to see the world upside down. To protect brain health, she cited a study that called for four minutes of brisk walking and then three minutes of easy walking during a long walk. Ms. Streets adds that she gallops, dances, or hops to stay fresh.

Her thesis: movement is medicine. “A 12-minute walk changes 522 metabolites in our blood – molecules that affect the beat of our heart, the breath in our lungs, the neurons in our brain,” she writes in the book coming out next month. “Oxygen flows through us and influences … our memory, our creativity, our mood, our ability to think.”


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Many of these books were already underway when a mental crisis emerged alongside the pandemic. As these writers worked, they looked for ways for the body to fight anxiety and depression. Believing this news has an eager audience, the authors note that Covid-19 has caused millions to rethink their routines, including their exercise habits.

“I want people to dust off their connection to their body so they can hear what their body wants and needs,” says Dr. Ellen Vora, psychiatrist. In her new book, The Anatomy of Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming the Body’s Fear Response, due out in March, she argues that physical activity is being ignored by experts who focus too much on mental health. “It’s the low hanging fruit,” she says. “Brain chemistry, thoughts, and behaviors can take years to clear up on the couch.”


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Jennifer Heisz examines the neuroscience of training in “Move the Body, Heal the Mind: Overcome Anxiety, Depression and Dementia and Improve Focus, Creativity, and Sleep,” which is due to be released March 8th Resists the Movement. Tip: Before training, play music that floods the brain with dopamine, the feel-good hormone that can make exercise less strenuous.

Dr. Heisz served as her own guinea pig, from a sedentary academic to a triathlete, a transformation described in the book (which ends with her completing a solo Ironman when the event was canceled due to the pandemic).

“We can use our body as a tool to influence our thinking and feeling, like a hotline to the mind”


– Caroline Williams, author of “Move: How the New Science of Body Movement Can Set Your Mind Free”

One of her more fascinating tricks is to rinse a sugary drink in your mouth without swallowing it – even maple syrup would work, the Canadian researcher suggests, just not a sugar substitute. The act causes the brain, which naturally wants to store energy for survival, to release dopamine to facilitate exercise based on the false promise of sugar, she explains.

Nita Sweeney says in her book that exercise can be turned into powerful meditative practice.


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Ed Sweeney

“The brain is always working against you so as not to use up energy, but we can override it,” says Dr. Heisz, who is the director of the NeuroFit Lab at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, who studies the effects of exercise on brain health.

In her new book, Make Every Move a Meditation: Mindful Movement for Mental Health, Well-Being, and Insight, due out in August, Nita Sweeney argues that pickleball or a Zumba class can be turned into a powerful meditative practice whose benefits extend to other areas of life. Focusing the mind on a single thought, object, or sensation during exercise can lead to clarity and peace of mind, she says.


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“I often use my left foot to run,” she says. “I don’t know why, but I can feel the feeling that my left foot is touching the ground.” She encourages people to use “a tiny bit of willpower” to focus on a single object while exercising and bring their thoughts back when they wander.

Dr. Robin Berzin, a functional medicine doctor, fills her prescription pad with instructions for patients to exercise. In State Change: End Anxiety, Beat Burnout, and Ignite a New Baseline of Energy and Flow, out next week, she introduces a starter kit for readers using exercise for mental health, a six-day weekly regimen from cardio, weight training, and more meditative practices like yoga and tai chi.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

How are you adapting your training program for 2022? Join the conversation below.

The author, founder of the national holistic medical practice Parsley Health, outlines reasons why exercise is mandatory for those seeking mood stability and better mental health. It offers all sorts of research-based motivations, as well as the kind of hard love that needs no explanation.

“Just do it,” she writes, “now.”

Write to Ellen Gamerman at ellen.gamerman@wsj.com

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