Would you like to know about a wonder drug that can help protect
your brain and body against the ravages of aging and illness?
Furthermore, what would you say if I told you this “drug” is
free, or virtually free?
AND – what would you think if I told you that YOU hold the ability
to activate this drug in YOUR hands, right now!
Well, this wonder drug isn’t anything new. It’s been recommended
and promoted for centuries, actually millenia….at least as far
back as the ancient Greeks.
What exactly is this “stuff”? Here’s a hint:
“If exercise was a drug, it would be the biggest wonder drug to
ever hit the market. People would be clamoring for it.”
-Dr. Irwin Barr, Kaiser Permanente
You’re surely aware by now of the benefits of regular exercise.
This is nothing new.
But if you’re like me, as you get older you start thinking more
about quality of life issues as you age.
You want to thrive, feel good and be healthy today….AND you
want to maintain enough strength and fitness to help keep your
independence and ensure better quality of life as you get older.
This may be prompted by seeing family members or friends of your
family go through aging-related declines in their physical
strength and capabilities, their endurance, and – scariest of
all – in their cognitive abilities.
We are going through this now with both sets of parents, to
varying degrees. While our main concern is for them, of course,
we can’t help but think about how best to avoid this outcome
for ourselves in the future, as we move into our 60s, 70s and
I’ll talk more about exercise and fitness in helping keep your
body young and healthy in a future message. Today, I’d like to
discuss how important exercise is for the health and maintenance
of your brain.
There’s a great book available by Dr. John J. Ratey titled
“SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain”
(published by Little, Brown 2008).
Ratey is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Harvard
School of Medicine who has taken a special interest in the
effects that regular exercise and fitness have on the brain.
He says that exercise is the single most powerful tool we have
to optimize our brain function.
There are several ways that exercise acts on the brain to
enhance cognitive functioning. One of the most interesting is
the action of nerve growth factors within the brain. The
scientists, including Ratey, call these growth factors
“Miracle-Gro for your brain”.
I won’t go through all the scientific jargon. Instead, I’ll
boil this down to how I explained this to my son, who has ADHD
and related issues (more about that later).
In the past, conventional wisdom assumed that our brains can
develop for awhile into early adulthood; then they pretty much
become fixed in terms of size, number of neurons, connections
between neurons, etc.
In other words, as we age, our brain “plasticity” or ability to
change or grow decreases or even disappears.
Then you’re basically on that sliding slope down to forgetfulness,
decreased cognitive function, maybe even senility. yikes!!
Well, enter the modern era of brain study and imaging.
It turns out that the old assumptions about inevitable cognitive
decline, inability to learn new things as an adult (like a new
language or the latest video game), senility in advanced age,
etc. is not necessarily our destiny.
In fact, it turns out that the brain maintains its plasticity,
even as we age. The brain is flexible. Everything we do, think,
or feel shapes our brain. It’s adaptable and can be molded by
So, just as you can build muscles by performing resistance
exercises….so can you build your brain. The more you use it,
the stronger it becomes.
AND – the more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes.
Anyways, back to that Miracle-Gro stuff.
Exercise releases certain types of proteins known as growth
factors, some of which are specific to the brain. These factors
nourish brain cells like fertilizer and increase the number
of connections between brain cells.
Increased connections basically prime your brain to take in
more information, process it better, remember it better, and
put it into context.
In other words, exercising regularly nourishes and enhances
your brain, which means you can learn faster, better process
and retain information, and create connections between facts
and ideas to help you be more creative.
For many people, this promise of enhanced brain function and
preventing cognitive decline as we age may be even more
powerful as a motivator than any physical benefits of exercise.
We often talk about this when we discuss getting older. No one
I know wants to get old and senile. Everyone would prefer being
with it and aware and cognizant of what is going on, all the
way to the end.
Better our bodies give out first before our minds.
I say this with full awareness of and empathy for those readers
who are caring for a loved one with dementia or Alzheimers. I
helped care for my grandmother who (finally) succumbed to
Parkinsons and dementia, along with other health issues.
It was extremely difficult to see her in that state, and for
On the other hand, those occasional glimmers of lucidity, of
recognizing a daughter or grandson, of laughing or reminiscing
about a fond memory, let us know our mother / grandmother was
still in there. And her life still had value.
Nevertheless, seeing this up close certainly has served as
motivation for me to continue to improve upon my own health and
fitness habits, in the hopes of avoiding a similar experience
myself as well as putting my family members through it.
And it motivates me to share with and encourage you too!
Now, to the other end of the age spectrum……
I mentioned that my son Miguel has ADHD. I can say unequivocally
that whether or not he gets in exercise and play each day –
especially outdoor play – makes a big difference in his outlook
and his behavior.
He and I often exercise together, especially on the weekends when
we have more time. We’ll hit the bags or do some sparring; do
pushups and situps and maybe some light weights.
We walk the dogs nearly every day and often go for longer hikes
in the hills near our house. Our entire family started bike riding
together this past summer. And we play various sports like soccer
and baseball together in our back yard.
Now I’m thinking that maybe I should wake Miguel up a bit earlier
each morning and work out before school.
It turns out that Dr. Ratey was inspired to research and write
his “Spark” book by a study that was done on school-age kids in a
suburban Chicago school district.
Basically they had the kids exercise before school – they called it
“Zero Hour PE” – with an emphasis on exercise to enhance fitness
(not team sports or games like in a typical PE class).
They found that the kids got fitter. No surprise there.
More exciting, however, they also found that working out before
school gave the kids a big boost in reading ability and the rest
of their subjects.
By working out in the morning, the kids were sent off to classes in
a “state of heightened awareness” and prepared to learn.
For kids like Miguel who battle that extra challenge of having
to work even harder to focus and maintain impulse control,
exercising in the morning could be another tool in our tool
For us adults who fight a similar battle to stay focused on
what’s important in a world of distractions…as well as those of
us who fight the “battle of the bulge” or have other health issues,
getting in even a little activity in the morning could make a
I’ve long advocated and practiced doing some breathing and
energy exercises first thing in the morning, before you get going
on the rest of your day.
It doesn’t have to be elaborate. Just a few deep breaths and
stretches will do wonders. It’s a great routine which can do your
body – and brain – a lot of good.
You Can Do It!
“Transform Body Mind and Spirit with Dynamic Energy Exercise!”
P.S. Breathing paired with specific movements is a natural,
intuitive and awesomely effective way to wake up your body, brain
and internal energies. You can easily and consistently tap into
the power, motivation and abilities you already have through
breathing and exercise.
Discover how to tap into your own source of energy with the Secret
Power of Dynamic Energy Exercise Course, Volume II: The Dynamic
Energy Routine, available at
feel sharp and energized for hours after!
Copyright, Karen Van Ness, 2014
One thought on “This Stuff is “Miracle-Gro” for Your Brain”
You are so interesting! I don’t believe I’ve read through something like this before.
So great to find someone with a few original
thoughts on this issue. Seriously.. thank you for starting this
up. This website is something that’s needed on the internet, someone
with some originality!