The Mind/Muscle Relationship!

The brain is responsible for the processes underpinning many of our day-to-day actions, from completing a set bench presses to planning ones training program. It is important, to keep our brain in great shape to get the most out of our training.
Brain-power is vitally important. After all, our brain dictates how we feel and consequently it has an impact on our motivational state and subsequent training intensity levels. Weight, and aerobic, training, hold significant benefits in terms of mental well-being and intellectual acuity. The brain is responsible for the processes underpinning many of our day to day actions, from completing a set bench presses to planning one's training program.

It is important, therefore, to keep our brain in great shape to get the most out of our training. Furthermore, brain health and training seem to be symbiotically related, in that daily exercise appears to be one of the best methods of enhancing brain health and adequate brain health ensures that we are better able to train.

Indeed, exercise has been shown to improve psychological well-being, memory and learning through many different processes. These processes and the benefits of exercise, in terms of brain-health, will be explained in this article.

From a bodybuilding perspective, improvements in brain health can enhance concentration, motivation, memory, emotions and reflexes - all essential for an optimal training experience, and greater quality of life overall. Lets take a detailed look at how exercise can enhance brain-power.

The Benefits

Psychological Well-Being

Exercise, which includes weight training, can have a profound effect on mental health by fundamentally helping the brain cope better with stress. Research into the effect of neuro-chemicals involved in the body?s stress response suggest that physically active people have lower rates of depression and anxiety than sedentary people (American Psychological Association, 1996).

Brain concentrations of norepinephrine, in brain regions involved in the body's stress response, have been shown to increase in response to physical activity.

In fact, 50 percent of the brains supply of norepinephrine is produced in a region of the brain called the locus coeruleus, which interconnects most of the brain regions involved in emotions and stress responses.

Some anti-depressant medication increases concentrations of norepinephrine in the brain and researchers have suggested it may have a similar effect to exercise.

Exercise induces the body's physiological systems to work closely, which ultimately positively affects the central and sympathetic nervous systems which control all of our bodily processes. "As one becomes de-conditioned, either through sedentary living or forced bed rest due to illness or injury, the physiological stress system becomes less efficient in its ability to respond to a variety of stressors, "Mark Sothmann of Indiana University School of Medicine says. "No other type of clinical intervention [for disorders like depression] forces such dynamic communication as exercise, he says.

A further study lending support to the positive effect exercise has on brain health was conducted by Carl Cotman and colleges at UCI. A protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), concentrated in the hippocampal (learning and memory) area of the brain, was induced through exercise these researchers found. BDNF is know to have antidepressant like properties, and has been found in lower levels in the blood of people with major depression the researchers said.

The induction of BDNF in the brains of 2-, 15- and 24-month-old rats was measured before and after various periods of exercise. Following exercise, levels of BDNF were found to be 'significantly' higher. "Translated into human terms this means that individuals who are appropriately physically active may be able to protect themselves from depression," says Cotman.

The hippocampus, the area shown in Cotmans study to contain BDNF, plays a central role in many memory formation processes, including spatial learning?locating objects in the environment?and consciously recalling facts, episodes, and unique events. An optimally functioning hippocampal region may help us to navigate our way through the bumpy road of life more efficiently.

The biological consequences of living under the seemingly constant pressure of the modern world take a tremendous toll on our mental well-being. It could be argued that breaking the pressure through training is an excellent course of action to safeguard ones sanity.

Training is, by and large, a restorative process which puts a persons life in perspective and helps them to deal with stress. People who exercise regularly are typically more relaxed and confident, more productive, less easily fatigued and more disciplined. So taking time out to train is an excellent psychological strategy in terms of stress management. The stresses of life have considerably less of a negative impact on one who is physically active.

Another way exercise has been shown to enhance psychological well-being is through the release of endorphins, a class of chemicals present in the brain. Endorphins are naturally manufactured in the brain under conditions of stress or pain (the type of pain associated with high intensity weight-training or running, for example).

They are often referred to as 'feel-good' chemicals and are likened to a natural opiate supply in our bodies. The analgesic effect of endorphins occurs when they flood between nerve cells following high intensity training, and prevent neurons from firing. Endorphin release further contributes to the stress inhibiting effects of exercise, and the psychological well-being that often ensues.

Memory & Learning Enhancement

What Is Memory?

Memory is closely associated with learning in that, through memory, knowledge is acquired and made available. In fact, memory is a process of retaining, storing and recalling experiences. There are different types of memory: short-term (or temporary) which is stored for a short period of time (a millisecond to a few minutes) and long-term (or permanent), which is longer lasting.

Through repetition, focused-attention, and associated ideas, short-term memory can become long-term memory.

We Also Have Two Categories Of Memory:

  1. Declarative
  2. Procedural

When we remember facts such as a phone number or address we use declarative memory. Procedural memory is used for procedures and abilities such as driving a car or riding a bike.

Memory development is clearly very important for any athlete as, in essence, procedural memory is needed to master a particular sporting skill or develop athletic ability and declarative memory is needed to help remember goals, training methods and other facts associated with one's training program.

Training, both aerobic and anaerobic, are particularly important as we age, as this is when brain shrinkage predominantly occurs. Memory loss is common during this period. Exercise can help to prevent this shrinkage and the accompanying memory loss says Arthur Kramer from the University of Illinios. "MRI studies reveal that poorly regulated blood sugar levels cause the brains hippocampus region to shrink," he says. But the more muscle one has, the better able their body is to regulate glucose levels and stave of this shrinkage. This is excellent news for bodybuilders and further incentive to make bodybuilding a regular part of ones life.

"Since weight training helps to build muscle, it is one of the best ways we have for preventing or possibly even reversing memory damage," says Antonio Convit, MD, of the NYU School of Medicine.

It appears brain function is also enhanced in children who exercise. In a 4-year study at Albion College in Michigan, it was found that children who engaged in regular exercise scored significantly higher on standardized mathematics tests than their non-exercising counterparts (IAMBP, 2004). It was also reported that the exercise helped to improve the children?s emotional and social skills.

It was once thought that the growth of new neurons (neurogenesis) did not occur in the adult mammalian brain at all. Now it appears that this process does take place and exercise may play a major role, according to Terrence Sejnowski, an HHMI researcher at The Salk Institute for Biological Studies. In Sejnowski's study, memory skills were compared between two groups of mice - one sedentary group and one exercise group.

It was found, upon comparing the neural change between the groups, that the exercise group, which had run on a treadmill for one month, had developed 2.5 times more neurons than the sedentary group.

These neurons were not distributed evenly throughout the brain, but were concentrated in the dentate gyrus, a section of hippocampus - the all-important area involved in memory and learning. "These observations support the idea that exercise enhances the formation and survival of new nerve cells as well as the connections between nerve cells, which in turn improves long-term memory," Sejnowski explained

Exercise Improves Brain Function In The Following Ways:

  1. Improves psychological well-being.
  2. Improves memory and learning.

Additional ways to improve brain function (and consequently, training success) include:

Dietary Factors

  1. Eating plenty of Omega-3 fatty acid containing foods, or taking Omega-3 in supplement form: Researchers at Utrecht and Maastricht Universities in the Netherlands found that those who ate fatty fish regularly, scored higher on a battery of tests for memory, psychomotor speed, cognitive flexibility, and overall cognition.

  2. Supplementing with Gingko Biloba: More than three hundred studies have demonstrated that gingko helps protect and promote memory and relieve signs of senility, probably due to the increased blood flow to the brain

  3. Continuing to eat plenty of protein: Protein is needed to make every living cell in our bodies. It also has a very positive effect of mental function.

  4. Supplementing with Acetyl-L-Carnitine: Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALC) is another vital nutrient for brain health. A number of scientific studies have shown that carnitine, a nutrient consisting of the amino acids lysine and methionine, helps slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease.

  5. Reducing consumption of alcohol: Brain imaging techniques show that chronic alcohol use leads to greater shrinkage in the cortex frontal lobes than we normally see as people age. The frontal lobe is where the higher intellectual functions occur. Even smaller amounts of alcohol can impair memory and learning.

  6. Sufficient water intake: Water helps to promote memory. Insufficient water intake can lead to dehydration, which can cause confusion and problems with memory.

Engage In Neurobic Training

The Following Multi-Sensory Association-Exercises Are Examples Of Neurobic Training:

  1. Brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand, to use the side of the brain you don't normally use.

  2. Wearing earplugs at mealtime to force you to use other cues to accomplish even simple tasks like knowing when toast is done.

  3. Start your car with your eyes closed, to open up opportunities to form additional associations - like the detailed feel of your keys - that are suppressed when you rely solely on sight.

Additional Ideas To Improve Brain Function

  1. Laugh Often: Laughing keeps the brain alert and allows one to retain more information as it elevates the mood and eases tension and psychological stress. Furthermore, both sides of the brain are stimulated through laughter. This helps to enhance learning.

  2. Social Interaction & Support: Lack of meaningful stimulation from others can lead to can cause memory problems and lead to depression.

  3. Get Adequate Rest & Sleep: Sleep appears necessary for our nervous systems to work properly. Too little sleep leaves us drowsy and unable to concentrate the next day. It also leads to impaired memory and physical performance and reduced ability to carry out math calculations researchers found (NINDS, 2003).

  4. Breathing & Relaxation: Breathing can be used to calm ourselves. Focusing on breathing can help to reduce tension and nervousness, which can inhibit our ability to pay attention and can interfere with memory.


As bodybuilders, and fitness enthusiasts, our goals are often physically related. Improvements in stamina, muscular size and symmetry tend to be overarching objectives and mental (brain) health as it relates to exercise, may be overlooked in pursuit of these things.

Optimal brain health and physical fitness, however, are inextricably linked as shown in the research findings summarised in this article. Psychological well-being and memory/learning improvements often result from physical exercise and quality of training is often improved as a result of enhanced metal acuity. An excellent reason to continue training.


  1. American Psychological Association.(1996). Help Centre: Mind/Body Connection. [ Online ]
  2. Brain Elevated Among Exercise Addicts. Online publication: [ Online ]
  3. Blum, E.(2004). Healthology. Nutrients for Brain Health. [ Online ]
  4. Convit, A.(2004). Institute for Aging and Dementia. New York University School of Medicine: [ Online ]
  5. C, Cotman.(2003). Eurekalert. Exercise has a more powerful impact on the brain than previously thought.
  6. International Association of Mind/Body Proffesionals.(2004). Mental Fitness Can exercise and a wellness-focused life keep your mind sharp? [ Online ]
  7. Kramer, A.(2003).Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences, February. News release, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  8. Omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood improve brain function. [ Online ]
  9. Rhodes, J.(2003).Oregon Health and Science University: Good' Chemical, Neurons In National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2003). Brain-basics: Understanding Sleep.