Brain Health,

#125: Exercise and Cognition

April 22, 2016

When it comes to fitness and exercise…

Sal di Stefano wants to give it to you straight, no bullshit.

After 18 years as a personal trainer, di Stefano knows all the myths propagated by the fitness industry:  six small meals a day will speed up your metabolism; women shouldn’t lift weights because they’ll bulk up; if you eat too late at night it will turn into body fat.  He was fed up with it, and decided to start the MindPump podcast with two other personal trainers to start dispelling these myths.

Brains and Brawn?

You know the stereotypes:  the skinny brainiac and the dumb jock.  But when you look at the science, it’s clear that proper exercise will improve your cognition.

In the short term, physical movement increases the production of certain neurotransmitters — dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine — essential for a healthy, sharp brain.

It also boosts Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which promotes neurogenesis (the generation of neurons) and synaptogenesis (the formation of synapses between neurons).  More neurons and synapses means a healthier, faster-thinking brain.

In the long run, consistent physical activity could also slow or prevent cognitive decline.  In fact, studies on elderly persons have shown that exercise causes brain growth, particularly in the parts that control memory and creative thinking.

The Best Exercise For Your Brain

Although some animal studies have shown cardio to be the best form of exercise to improve cognitive function, the results of human studies have been mixed.  Both resistance training and cardio seem to have benefits.

For the biggest cognition boost, di Stefano recommends complex movement, as opposed to repetitive movement like running, since by moving in multiple ways, you’re encouraging the brain to adapt and grow.

Harder Does Not Mean Better and Stronger

The fitness magazine headlines scream “Beast Mode!” and “the hardest workout you’ll ever do.” But although intensity is an important factor in improving cognition via exercise, higher intensity is not the be-all and end-all. The human body responds well to appropriate intensity, but it also responds to frequency.

In fact, frequency may be more important for longevity, long term health, and cognitive function than simple intensity.

If you want increased creativity and a sharper brain, instead of twice weekly “Beast Mode” sessions, just move more everyday.  In di Stefano’s MAPS Anabolic program, he recommends “Trigger Sessions,” five minute sessions done two or three times a day.  He likens the effect to caffeine:  increased alertness and creativity.

Note: “intensity” is an individual assessment.  What’s high intensity for a sedentary office worker is low for a professional athlete, to use one extreme example.  So how hard should you work out?  Challenge yourself, but you don’t want to feel like you just got beat up.  If you can barely move for two days, or you need to take a nap after a workout session, you’ve overdone it.

Ready to Exercise Your Most Important Muscle?

Listen to the interview for more on…

  • How moving more is one of the best “bang for your buck” activities to get a better brain.
  • Why “muscle memory” should be more accurately termed “brain memory.”
  • Di Stefano’s experience training an eighty-year-old women and slowing down dementia.
  • Why the most successful creative people go for walks.
  • How Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) could be the solution to our obesity crisis.
  • And why the guy with the most muscular calves in the gym probably doesn’t work them out.  (Hint: it’s probably genetic).

Important Note on Cannabidiol:
As mentioned, we got a note from Kyle Boyar about Cannabidiol — the subject of Episode #124.  He wrote:  “I noticed in your last episode your guest had mentioned he was unaware of any potential problems that could arise from the use of CBD. There actually is an issue of great concern with the use of cannabidiol and that is due to its interaction with the cytochrome p450 enzyme (CYP2D6). See  The worry here is especially towards epileptic patients (but really any patient) that are on numerous drugs to control their seizures. This enzyme degrades about 25% of clinically used medications and an altered drug metabolism can actually result in the worsening of seizures. I’ve also attached a list of some of the medications involved here.

PS:  Inspired to give your most important muscle (your brain, duh!) even more love? Sign up for the Brain Breakfast, delivered weekly to your inbox. And then get up and go for a walk!

Show Notes
  • 00:00:26

    Exercise and cognition

  • 00:01:28

    This Week in Neuroscience: Why Kids Love Getting Dizzy

  • 00:06:00

    The audience interaction section

  • 00:09:07

    Intro to Sal Di Stefano and Mind Pump

  • 00:11:06

    Exercise myths, MAPS, how Mind Pump began

  • 00:14:59

    Genetic predisposition and exercise

  • 00:16:12

    The Sports Gene by Devid Epstein

  • 00:19:09

    How exercise and levels of intensity affect cognition

  • 00:26:17

    60% of maximum effort and perceived exertion

  • 00:27:58

    Frequency vs intensity: move a little bit every single day

  • 00:31:50

    Exercise for learning, creativity and memory in schools and the workplace

  • 00:33:26

    Why you don't forget how to ride a bike

  • 00:34:47

    Physical fitness in old age and longevity

  • 00:37:50

    What is the best daily schedule for optimal cognition?

  • 00:42:47

    Approach exercise objectively - where is the evidence?

  • 00:44:58

    Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick:


  1. Mark says:

    Hi, I really liked this podcast. However, I guess I missed the title of the fitness book(s) Sal was suggesting. And yeah, since I’m listening to a lot of podcasts I hope it was in this one. 🙂

    Thx, KR, Mark.

    1. Jesse Lawler says:

      Hi there Mark! Check out our Bookshelf page — you’re looking for The Sports Gene. 🙂

      1. Mark says:

        Thx a lot, Jesse 🙂

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