Tag Archive for: fitness

You’re probably already familiar with many of the oft-cited benefits of exercise. It’s good for your heart, it can help you maintain a healthy weight, it’s good for your lungs, and the list goes on. It seems as though scientists are constantly uncovering new ways exercise can help you keep your body healthy and happy.

Detoxing and cleanses are hot topics in healthy living. And, naturally, people have started to explore the ties between exercise and the body’s detox processes. There’s a lot of information kicking around the internet on the subject. You may have encountered some already. A portion of this information is rooted in credible, scientific research, but a lot of it comes from less-credible sources.

The trick is sorting the facts from the fiction. That’s where the advice below comes in. Keep reading to learn all about the role exercise plays—and doesn’t play—in your body’s detox processes.

What is Detoxing Anyway? Learn the Basics

Detoxing was initially very specific, only talking about removing drugs, alcohol, or poison. In recent years, however, the term has been extended to the removal of any toxins from the body—whether they’re alcohol, chemicals, or bodily waste.

Through the combined effort of your liver, kidneys, and intestines, your body removes toxins from itself every day of your life. These processes are natural, and, for the most part, there’s not much you can do to change them.

Most detox tips and tricks are based on the idea that your body needs a little extra push to fully remove toxins. There’s a lot of pseudoscience out there, so be sure to complete your due diligence. (More on that here!)

The Science Behind the Role of Exercise in Detox

Where cardio, weight lifting, or any of your other favorite workouts fit into the detox picture depends on who you ask.

Some exercise routines are touted as detox workouts—meaning they somehow facilitate the better or more efficient removal of toxins from your body. Others claim that as you work up a sweat, you release toxins out through your pores.

The science behind these claims is shaky.

But here’s what science does tell us: exercise can help your body detox—by helping maintain liver and kidney health. It’s all about taking care of your body’s natural defenses and processes.

Exercise also has a positive impact on one of your body’s other defenses against toxins: the lymphatic system. The two parts of this important system are lymphatic vessels and lymph nodes. Together, they send lymph fluid—which helps you maintain healthy immunity and helps protect you from other harmful substances—throughout your body. Regular exercise has been shown to help increase the body’s circulation of lymph fluid, helping you flush out toxins and bacteria more effectively.


A Fun Fact About the Lungs and Detox

With every breath, your lungs help detox your body by expelling carbon dioxide. This gas is a toxic byproduct of energy metabolism. So the more you exercise, the more carbon dioxide your lungs have to remove.

Don’t worry though, regular exercise (and not smoking) is one of the most important things you can do to optimize the strength, efficiency, and overall health of your lungs. The work they go through to pull in extra oxygen and expel carbon dioxide during exercise will only help you in the long run.


Can You Sweat Out Toxins?

If you’ve ever exercised, you’ve worked up a sweat. Heck, even if you’ve never exercised, you’ve probably been uncomfortably sweaty at some point. It happens. Sweat is one of your body’s primary temperature regulation mechanisms. If your body feels itself overheating, it releases sweat to cool you back down.

But what if sweat did more? What if your body’s cooling system also helped purge your system of toxins? It’s an appealing idea and seems plausible enough. But unfortunately, it is mostly wishful thinking.

Although there are a few studies that suggest sweat may contain heavy metals and other toxins, the general consensus is that sweating does what it is meant to, i.e. cools your body, and not much else.

At the end of the day, your sweat is mostly water with a little bit of salt.

The Key to Detox is a Happy Liver and Exercise Can Help

Sweating might not be a detox mechanism, but don’t write off exercise just yet. There are a number of other ways a good workout can help your body take care of toxins. And chief among these is keeping your liver healthy.

Your liver is like a pool filter—it sifts the bad from the good. Then it breaks down and disposes of the unwanted debris. Sure, this is a simplification of the process, but it gets the point across. The liver is the single most important piece of your body’s detoxing puzzle.

Here’s another fact about the liver: it works hard. And it works a lot. You can make your liver’s job easier by drinking in moderation, maintaining a healthy weight, and eating healthy. But it will naturally experience some wear and tear. This often takes the form of fat build up in the liver. (Fat build up isn’t an immediate health risk, but can lead to scarring of the liver known as fibrosis and eventually cirrhosis.)

This is where exercise comes into play.

In a study of patients with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease—a health condition commonly associated with obesity—regular exercise was shown to reduce the amount of fat on the liver. This held true for aerobic exercise (jogging, biking, etc.) and resistance training (weight lifting, body weight exercises, etc.). Additionally, patients saw a reduction in liver fat regardless of weight loss.

So what does this mean? Put simply, any exercise routine you choose will help keep your liver healthy—so long as you’re doing it regularly. It doesn’t matter if you choose Pilates, cycling, swimming, or free-weight training. And even if you’re not losing weight, your liver is still being supported.

What About the Kidneys and Exercise?

The liver does a lot of your body’s detoxing legwork, but it’s not a one-organ show. Your kidneys are also involved in the process—especially when it comes to filtering liquids. As blood flows from your liver to the kidneys, your other important detox organs remove urea and other waste from the blood. These waste products are then expelled from your body via urine.

It’s natural for your kidneys to be impacted as you age, just like any other part of your body. And like the rest of your body, the better you care for yourself and your health, the healthier your kidneys will stay.

Just like the liver, your kidneys are affected by your lifestyle choices. The harder you make them work, the quicker they will be negatively impacted. On the flip side, some studies have linked regular exercise to healthier kidneys. So in other words, the more you exercise, the longer you can keep your kidneys working at their best.

The Role of Exercise in Mental Detoxing

One form of detoxification that is often overlooked is mental detox. Over the course of the day, you encounter countless stressors—some bigger than others. And these stressors can pile up from day to day, adding to your baseline level of stress and anxiety.

People cope with stress in a variety of ways, but one of the most common forms of mental detox is exercise. While you are active, your body naturally releases chemicals called endorphins that relieve stress and elevate your mood. (If you’ve ever heard the phrase “runner’s high,” this is what’s being described.)

These endorphins, combined with the sense of accomplishment that often accompanies exercise, can help dispel stress, giving you a mental detox.

Start Actively Supporting Your Body’s Natural Defenses Against Toxins

At the end of the day, there’s never a quick fix for detoxing your body. There’s no miracle workout that will help rid your system of toxins. No amount of sweating will keep your body free of unwanted substances. (But all that exercise might dehydrate you, so be sure to drink plenty of water!)

Although no quick fix exists, there is a simple one: exercise regularly and maintain a healthy diet. This tried-and-true approach will help keep your body’s natural toxic defenders—your kidneys and liver—working smoothly.

Exercise changes your body in many ways, some of which you can see in the mirror. The number on the scale may shift a bit and your clothes may start to fit better with each mile (or kilometer) you walk, jog, or swim. These scale and non-scale victories might be how you measure the success of your exercise routine, but have you ever considered the cellular benefits of exercise?

Your cells are the starting point for all the changes that regular exercise can bring. And there are many cellular benefits of exercise that can lead to full-body transformations. Cardiovascular and strength training exercises affect cells throughout your body. From your heart and brain to the white blood cells of your immune system, your cellular health is optimized when you exercise.

Cardio: It’s Not Just for Your Heart

Classic cardiovascular exercises send blood pumping and elevate your heart rate. You might add cardio to your training to build your stamina and endurance. But you’ll be doing more than that. Cardio can be a cellular health exercise, too.

Several cell types respond to cardiovascular exercise (cardiac cells included). Cellular health is supported by the quick, heart-pounding movements of cardio. Check out how cells all over your body respond to this fast-paced form of exercise:

Cardiac Cells

Let’s start with the cells closest to the action of cardio exercise. Cardiac make up your heart tissue. Your heart is essentially a super muscle, with an impressive compression force that pushes blood out to your entire body.

The muscle cells in your heart are highly specialized, and they don’t regenerate nearly as often as the other cells in your body (only about one percent of heart cells renew themselves every year). But there is a way to support cardiac cells and optimize their regeneration—exercise, cardio to be exact.

A 2018 study of mice helped scientists draw a link between cardio exercise and heart cell growth. Mice are frequently used as model organisms for human biology research. Mouse biology is very close to human biology and their genes work in many of the same ways human genes do.

Researchers found that mice with access to a treadmill in their enclosures chose to run approximately five kilometers every day. Their heart health was monitored and the scientists administering the experiment used DNA markers to track the growth of cardiac cells.

The results were spectacular, and favorable for the mice that had access to a treadmill. Mice who exercised made more than four times the number of new cardiac cells than their non-exercising counterparts.

This study helped cement the cellular benefits of exercise for your heart cells. So, if you have access to a treadmill (or a pair of running shoes and the open road) try putting in a few miles (or kilometers) the next time you want to focus on cellular health exercise.

Brain Cells

Anecdotally, many people believe you can train your brain like any other muscle in your body. It’s not a completely accurate statement since there are no muscle fibers in your brain. But if the goal of brain training is to strengthen the connections between neurons and build new neural networks, then exercise can definitely help whip your brain cells into shape.

Neurons, like muscle cells, can change as you exercise. Increased blood flow to the brain during exercise creates an oxygen-rich environment that your neurons thrive in. Extra oxygen and the release of neurotransmitters during exercise foster the growth of brain cells and the development of new neural pathways. You need these new neuronal connections to keep your brain “flexible” and to support your ability to learn new skills and make memories.

So, in a way, cardio exercises actually work out your brain, too. Movements that ramp up your heart rate are simultaneously stimulating your brain cells to grow and create new connections. Brain cells respond to heart-pumping exercise much like your large muscle groups respond to strength training—they grow!

Immune Cells

If you’re looking to mobilize the cells of your immune system, try to crank out a sweat session a couple times per week. Your white blood cells (WBCs) respond to exercise by increasing their circulation in the bloodstream. More WBCs in circulation means your immune system is primed and ready to take on germs that dare make an appearance.

The effects of exercise on immunity are well documented. You temporarily initiate your body’s immune response when you exercise. This allows your body to keep joint aches and soreness to a minimum after you work out.

With regular exercise you’ll experience a slight uptick in the number of WBCs that enter your bloodstream and stay in circulation. As a result, people who exercise regularly have been shown to experience fewer seasonal bugs and colds.

This phenomenon occurs only when regular, moderate exercise is performed. Consistent days of high-intensity exercise can trigger the opposite response from immune cells. “Overtraining syndrome” is the decline in immune performance that some ultra-marathoners and triathletes experience during training. Long periods of high-intensity exercises can put your body in a constant state of stress, actually hampering your immunity.

To hit the sweet spot of immune cell support, exercise moderately and consistently. A good way to identify what moderate exercise means for you is to gauge your breathing effort during your workouts. Try to aim for 70 percent of your maximum heart rate (you can calculate your max heart rate by subtracting your age from 220 beats per minute). That’ll keep you in the zone for cellular health and help you stay out of range of potentially damaging exercise intensity.

Telomeres (All Cells)

Cardiovascular movement influences the health of cells more generally, too. That’s the case when it comes to the telomeres that cap the ends of each cells’ chromosomes.

Chromosomes store all the DNA cells need to replicate (make copies of themselves). These chromosomes are used over and over again for multiple replication cycles. Telomeres are repeating segments of DNA that reside at the ends of each chromosome. These telomeres act as buffers to protect the chromosome from incorrect DNA replication.

Over time, telomeres start to shrink as more copies of each chromosome are made. Shortened telomeres lead to cellular aging and eventual death. So, it’s important to preserve the length of telomeres for as long as possible.

That’s where cardiovascular exercise comes into play. Regular cardio can slow the shortening of telomeres and moderate cellular aging. This is because cardiovascular exercise can affect the level of telomere-preserving enzymes in the cell.

The enzyme that protects telomeres from shortening is called telomerase. Exercise has been shown to elevate the amount of telomerase present in cells. And more available telomerase means telomeres are safeguarded from premature shortening.

Telomeres are at the center of the study of aging. While their role in general health and old age is not clear, one thing is certain. Exercise is great for keeping telomere caps from shrinking too soon and can positively affect the health of each of your cells.

More Cellular Health Exercises—Strength Training

Jogging through the neighborhood or riding a stationary bike exercise your cardiovascular system. But another method of exercise involves slower, more concentrated movements. It’s called strength training. Your heart rate won’t climb as high with strength training, but this form of exercise provides many benefits to your muscle cells.

Muscle Cells

Strength training in a gym setting often focuses on entire muscle groups, but the real effect of resistance exercises on muscles can be found at the cellular level. The cellular benefits of exercise for muscle cells begin rather uniquely. Injury to muscle cells during strength training is the launching point for these cellular benefits.

The cells that make up your larger muscle groups are injured (ever so slightly) when you strength train. Resistance exercises—like planks, push-ups, and squats—all create microscopic injuries to individual muscle cells. To repair themselves, muscle cells need to recruit the help of neighboring satellite cells.

Muscle fibers are surrounded by cells waiting to be called up to active duty when muscles are injured. These satellite cells fuse with injured muscle fibers and donate their organelles to help strengthen the muscle cell. Organelles from satellite cells—like mitochondria and nuclei—are valuable additions to muscle fibers. These organelles allow muscle cells to produce more energy and force during contraction.

Without exercise to trigger these micro-injuries, your muscles would never grow and strengthen in this way. Strength training is an important component of any exercise routine because it plays such a critical role in the health and growth of muscle cells.

Reap the Cellular Benefits of Exercise

Noticeable changes in your body and overall health are the reward of exercising regularly. And below the surface of it all, your cells thrive when you exercise. Think of the trillions of cells that make up your body when you are prepping for your next workout.

Shifting the focus of your workouts to the cellular level can help you appreciate how important your efforts are to even the smallest components of your body. Keep up the cardio and add in strength training so every cell in your body can experience the cellular benefits of exercise.

A lot of the information you find on weight management carries the same scientific heft as the blank pages you’d waste printing it out. The Internet wasn’t where weight myths started, though—not by a long shot. But weight-related misconceptions flourish in the fertile ground of today’s online ecosystem.

Physical and lifestyle realities make modern-day weight-management efforts hard enough. Add in the mountain of weight misinformation burying people’s best efforts, and you have a Herculean task.

But you can manage your weight to live a healthy, happy life. It starts with knowing fact from fiction. Clearing up six of the most pervasive weight myths is a good start. Read on to see which weight-related misconceptions you can toss aside to lighten the load of advice for staying healthy.

The Scale Says It All—Body Weight is Key to Your Health

It’s correct to connect higher-than-normal body weight with a broad range of undesirable health impacts. This is especially true when the added heft comes from accumulated body fat.

And body composition is certainly an element to consider when stepping on the scale. You’ve heard that muscle weights more than fat, which is true. Same goes for bone and water, too. So, that number on the scale doesn’t tell you everything you need to know.

Weight alone is a consideration, but your body composition is an important factor in evaluating what that scale number means for your health. Instead of buying this weight myth, put context around the measurements you’re doing. Also know that your body weight is only one piece of a big, complex health puzzle.

BMI is an Essential, Accurate Measurement

Body Mass Index (BMI) is somewhat useful in evaluating where you fall on the spectrum of healthy, overweight, and obese. But calling it a standard-bearing measurement, without realizing BMI’s shortcomings, spins this statement into a popular weight-related misconception. And one that can create unnecessary negative pressure on many people.

The simplicity of BMI—putting your height and weight into an equation that reveals your number—makes it a one-size-fits-all approach. Unfortunately, weight is an issue that’s highly personalized and incredibly variable. Here are two ways BMI’s oversimplification make its elevated importance a weight myth:

  1. Body composition isn’t considered. How much fat you have compared to muscle, bone, and water is—as you read about with the last weight-related misconception—essential context when discussing weight.
  2. The approach sidelines important demographic information like sex, race, ethnicity, and age.

Waist measurements (especially when related to height) are better, more accurate indicators of health risks related to body weight. It’s time you move on from relying solely on BMI—an outdated and inaccurate measurement—to make health decisions.

High Body Weight Signals Inactivity and Lack of Athletic Ability

This weight-related misconception is a common and painful bias that springs from bad information. Since many looking to lose weight turn to exercise, there’s a harmful conflation of physical activity and body weight.

As weight myths go, this one is particularly hurtful for those stereotyped by the way their bodies look. Just because someone looks to be carrying around a few extra pounds doesn’t mean they’re lazy or lack athletic ability.

How do you fight this weight-related misconception? Remember the most important statement: Bodies of all shapes and sizes can be—and frequently are—healthy.

Exercise Saves You from Bad Dietary Decisions

You may have read about the distance you need to run to burn off a big meal. They’re shocking numbers that underline why diet and exercise are talked about in combination.

Your bad dietary decisions will follow you to the gym—and likely long after. You can burn the calories you take in if you have the time to do it. However, this idea is best considered a weight myth because it’s not possible for almost anyone to balance out a bad diet with enormous amounts of exercise.

The truth is a successful weight-management plan needs to include a healthy diet AND consistent body movement.

Skinny Always Means Healthy and Being Thin is Ideal

Thin is always in when it comes fashion or pop culture. But a skinny body signaling ideal health is a major weight myth.

Staying fit and maintaining a healthy weight are beneficial to your health—as you’ve read so many times. But fretting over clothing sizes and wanting a thin image reflected in the mirror aren’t as important. Actually, a skinny silhouette can hide a bevy of issues, including the accumulation of harmful visceral fat.

This is one of the most damaging weight-related misconceptions. That’s because the unreal, unhealthy expectations set by “thin is ideal” images are—despite body-positive progress—still too prevalent.

Some body types don’t allow for anyone to meet these false ideals—no matter how hard a person tries. And the quest to look skinny is frequently very harmful for the physical and mental health of children and adults alike.

Instead, focus on what feels right for your body and your health goals. Eat healthy. Move your body. Sleep plenty. And always keep in mind that bodies are healthy and attractive in different sizes and shapes that may not match pop culture’s obsession with skinny.

Eating Fat Makes You Gain Fat Tissue

If you understand anything about how digestion breaks down dietary nutrients, you know this is an easily debunked weight myth.

Your digestive system does too much work, and your food goes through too much transformation, for the dietary fat you eat to turn straight into fat tissue. Sure, your body can store energy that was originally fat in adipose tissue (a fancy term for fat). But there’s no guarantee fat in means fat stored.

Skipping fried foods or fat-rich, nutrient-poor dishes are good ideas. But it’s worse to avoid eating fat at all—especially beneficial, plant-based options. Loading up on a balanced diet with plenty of plants is more effective for health and weight management.

Don’t Let Weight Myths Determine Your Health Journey

There’s always new, attention-grabbing content waiting when you want to read about weight. That doesn’t mean you have to buy into the weight-related misconceptions out there.

The basics of foundational health—a balanced diet, active living, minimal stress, solid hydration, and good sleep—are typically also beneficial for managing your weight. Everything else that offers a one-size-fits-all solution should raise a red flag about the advice or information possibly pushing a weight myth.

Avoid tripping yourself up with weight-related misconceptions by focusing on the basics and remembering that all bodies can be healthy, happy bodies.

When you think about it, brains are strange. They keeping your organs working and monitor the environment for danger. Basically, it keeps you alive. Yet the brain is also able to randomly pop up the lyrics to decades-old one-hit wonders. You can crack some of the mysteries of the brain by understanding the basics of neuroscience. But interesting brain-body connections still bring up tantalizing questions.

You’ve come to the right place to find your answers about how the brain and body work together. The six fascinating questions explored below help provide enhanced perspective about the brain-body connection.

Is the Brain Involved in Every Single Process and Function of My Body?

The short answer is yes. You would think your brain needs to delegate sometimes. But the brain monitors and reacts to changes everywhere in your body—and in your environment.

That doesn’t mean you’re conscious of all that’s going on.

Paying attention to every little function of the body would drive you insane. That’s why many functions are basically automated—especially those that keep you alive. It’s the reason you don’t have to think about moving your food through the digestive system, regulating blood flow, or consciously convert light into images.

So your brain is involved in everything, but thankfully, your conscious attention isn’t always needed.

Does the Brain Communicate Directly with the Whole Body?

The answer depends on what you consider direct communication. Your brain isn’t hopping on the body’s loud speaker to announce a wound cleanup on the finger you just cut on a piece of paper.

But the brain-body connection is built on solid two-way communication.

Your nervous system is responsible for relaying many of these messages. These nerve pathways allow probably the most traditionally direct communication—like the special connection of the gut-brain axis.

Your brain also uses chemical messengers. This can be done through the release of neurotransmitters or hormones—depending on the desired result.

Your stress response is a good example. Your brain senses stress and triggers the proper glands to release stress hormones like cortisol. These messengers tell the body to prepare for fight or flight—ramping up the physical sensations of stress you experience.

The methods may not be as direct and simple as anyone—especially those studying the brain-body connection—might like. But the communication methods are effective, which helps maintain health and happiness.

Are Parts of the Body Assigned Their Own Space in the Brain?

Your brain doesn’t have a Department of Bones or a Ministry of Arm Muscles. But different areas of the brain do specialize in certain functions.

Here’s how it breaks down (in alphabetical, not anatomical, order):

  • Brain Stem: Your brain’s connection to the spinal cord is a hub for information and nerves throughout your head and body. It also contains the medulla oblongata, which participates in keeping your heart and lungs working properly.
  • Cerebellum: Thank this part of your brain for any sports success you’ve had. Movement, fine motor skills, and balance are the responsibility of the cerebellum.
  • Diencephalon: It contains the thalamus, epithalamus, and hypothalamus. Together, they’re involved in how you feel emotionally, how you sleep, what you remember, how you behave, and how your body maintains the status quo of homeostasis.
  • Frontal Lobes: The front part of your brain helps you pay attention, strategize, judge, and solve problems. It also plays a role in your motor skills.
  • Occipital Lobes: You’re reading this thanks to this area’s ties to vision.
  • Parietal Lobes: Coordinating and making sense of information from your senses happens here.
  • Temporal Lobes: This area helps you recognize people’s faces and emotions. It’s also a primary reason you can learn spoken languages.

Parts of the Immune System are Found Throughout the Body. Is the Brain Really Commanding all Those Immune Cells?

Your immune system is often described as an army patrolling the borders of your body. In that scenario, you may mistake the brain for their commanding officer. But the relationship isn’t s a strict chain of command.

It’s much more of a collaborative effort, with plenty of communication pathways between the brain and immune system. Your nervous system connects directly to the thymus and bone marrow where cells are produced, as well as the lymphatic system. The cells on the front line of immunity also have receptors for brain messages. And they signal the brain with cytokines.

What you have is a complex dance of sensing, communicating, and reacting that results in immune protection. Your brain and immune cells are perfectly paired because they’re programmed to respond to changes in your body and environment. So it make sense they work together to keep you feeling your best.

Does the Blood-Brain Barrier Interrupt Brain-Body Connection?

It does, but selectively so. The blood-brain barrier protects your central processing center from unsavory items circulating in your blood.

This is accomplished by clamping down the space between the endothelial cells lining blood-vessel walls. Larger molecules—especially toxins and pathogens—can’t pass. Oxygen, fuel, and other important molecules make it through. Cellular communication and an array of transport proteins also allow some flexibility for what can cross the barrier.

That means your brain has a way to protect itself from everything in the body. But this barrier doesn’t typically stop the normal processes of your brain-body connection.

Mind Over Matter is a Popular Mantra During Exercise. But is Your Brain Really Able to Overcome Physical Factors to Push You During Exercise?

Your heart pounds, a deep breath escapes you, and your muscles are gelatin. But a couple of minutes remain in your workout. Your body feels done. Your brain is helping you push through.

That’s because your body sends signals, and your brain decides how to interpret them. Your motivation and mindset come into play. Your experiences building resilience and endurance also determine how far your brain will let you push your body.

There is a point where you must stop. Your brain’s main concern is survival, and you do have physical limits. Reach a point where survival is threatened or you have too much lactic acid in your muscles to keep running, you won’t be able to push through that wall. But your brain does make it possible to go harder and further than you might think.

There’s little debate that exercise plays a powerful role in a happy, healthy life. Regular physical activity helps to build strong muscles, improve your cardiovascular and metabolic systems, shape your physique, and even extend your health. Physically, most people feel better when they regularly exercise. But it doesn’t stop there. The psychology of exercising and enjoying physical activities that boost mood can be just as beneficial to overall health. It’s time you explored the emotional benefits of exercise.

Move for Your Mental Health

Shaping mental health looks different for everyone. Increasing positive feelings to help elevate your energy, give you confidence, boost your mood, and enhance your ability to cope with life’s daily stressors is a great place to start. Your mental health influences your cognition, behavior, and emotional well-being—how you think, act, and feel—at any moment. A crucial part of overall health is gaining more control over how you experience the ups and downs of everyday life.

The benefits of exercise on mental health are powerful. In fact, research suggests that exercise can be as effective as other remedies in maintaining a healthy mental state. This happens by supporting the growth of nerve cells and optimizing their connections within the brain—not simply because it helps tone your physique and improve your self-confidence. A lifestyle shift to try activities that boost mood and bolster your mental health can be a fun way to reap the rewards of reduced stress and a resilient mindset.

The psychology of exercising gives insight into what motivates you to get up and move and how to fit regular activity into your day. If you’re already a habitual exerciser, you’re probably familiar with one of the most common reasons exercise can be so fun—it just feels good. That’s you experiencing the emotional benefits of exercise. But, what’s behind that euphoric feeling that floods your body after a long run and helps you bounce back after a tough day?

Physical Activity and Brain Chemistry

As an infant, you were loved and adored by parents and family members. Being doted on by your primary caregivers flooded your brain with positive neurotransmitters—a powerful, happy combination of chemicals that helped give you feelings of safety, love, and pleasure through responsive interactions.

As you grow and develop, you carry this same innate need for positive feelings of well-being. And though physical activity may not exactly mimic the soothing feeling of receiving love from a parent, the emotional benefits of exercise produce some of the same combinations of chemicals—poignant tools for living a full and balanced life.

The crucial interplay of communication between your brain and body is a result of neurotransmitters and their essential role as messengers. They create a link to your nervous system tied to your emotions, motivation and drive, pain response, focus, energy levels, and your ability to tap into the positive aspects of the human experience. Common neurotransmitters that play a role in exercise and mood for greater mental health include:

  • Serotonin is a messenger that impacts your entire body. As an important regulator of mood and cognition, it’s responsible for creating an overall feeling of well-being and happiness. It also reboots your brain while you sleep and affects digestion.
  • Dopamine is your primary motivation chemical. It helps to promote ambition, drive, and attention. Plus, it assists to regulate important responses like movement and learning, as well as impacts your emotional state. Maintaining basic self-care, including daily exercise, is the most efficient way to ensure optimum dopamine levels.
  • Norepinephrine is associated with the fight-or-flight response when your body senses danger. It helps you react to stress and exercise by increasing heart rate and plays a role in breaking down fat to provide energy for your body.

Digging Deeper into Exercise’s Feel-Good Factor

If you’ve ever been motivated to hit the gym simply because it feels good—there’s a great explanation why. Hint: it’s not just the flood of endorphins common with this exhilarating feeling. Endocannabinoids (produced naturally in the body) are chemical compounds that are small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier to bind to neural receptors. They are actually responsible for the rush you feel after a great work out.

Aerobic exercise increases the production of several neurotropic factors—growth factors of the nervous tissue. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is among them, playing a central role in protecting existing neurons and stimulating the growth of new ones (a process called neurogenesis). BDNF actually helps you grow new brain cells. The more BDNF you have, the more you support the growth and development of your nervous system.

During exercise, BDNF is produced and works with the endocannabinoid receptors in the body to effectively block pain and create that feeling of bliss commonly known as a runner’s high. The presence of new neurons gives you an increased level of responsiveness to be more in touch with your experience. And the unique protective ability of BDNF makes your existing brain cells more resilient and less affected by stress on the body. Stress from regular exercise causes a chain reaction that feels good, helps make you more resilient to feelings of stress and anxiety, and actually helps you bounce back from the outside stressors of life faster than before.

BDNF also boosts serotonin production. And it’s reciprocal—higher levels of serotonin stimulate BDNF expression—creating a dynamic cycle that ignites feel-good senses from physical activity alone.

The Mental and Emotional Benefits of Exercise

It’s true, exercise helps to stimulate your mood on a chemical level, but the mental and emotional benefits of exercise also transform your day-to-day mindset. Whether you have a set fitness routine, are a seasoned weekend warrior, or want to experience the positive impact of daily exercise, you may recognize these benefits as you increase your physical activity.

  • Improved self-esteem
  • Increased energy and stamina
  • Easier weight management
  • Improved sleep quality
  • Pride in accomplishments
  • Improved body image perception
  • Enhanced ability to cope with stress
  • Stronger interpersonal relationships
  • Increased mental alertness

These practical benefits of exercise can increase your satisfaction, gratitude, and connection—all major mental-health wins.

Go the Distance with Aerobic Activities that Boost Mood

If you haven’t adopted a favorite aerobic activity, it’s a good time to try something new. Any form of exercise helps to overcome feelings of anxiety and increase well-being, but research shows the best activities that boost mood kick your heart rate up a bit. Moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise creates more robust and longer-lasting changes to your neurobiology. That’s right—revving up the treadmill speed can enhance your ability to cope with challenging situations.

  • Moderate intensity exercise—50-60 percent of your max heart rate (find your max by subtracting your age from 220)
  • Vigorous intensity exercise—70-85 percent of your max heart rate

Add intensity slowly, if necessary. Carry a backpack on your hikes, set goals to swim a faster lap, take fewer breaks between sets in the gym—anything to increase your heart rate as you become more physically fit. Achieving your personal exercise goals is an unbeatable investment in your well-being.

Keep the Momentum

A healthy habit of regular exercise creates ongoing, mood-boosting effects to build your momentum and tackle your fitness goals. If the first step to fitness seems difficult, try these motivational tips to mentally prepare for your next sweat session.

  • Action precedes motivation. Don’t wait until you feel like exercising—just do it. Schedule your workouts ahead of time, set out your gear, and don’t think too much, just start moving.
  • Be mindful of screen time during exercise. Engaging on social media or checking your phone constantly forces you to multitask during your workouts. You may become overwhelmed or distracted and lose your intensity and drive to continue.
  • Recruit a friend. Working out with a buddy enhances social connection, can push you to strive for greater intensity, and makes you accountable for your goals. Plus, a shared fitness goal is great motivation.
  • Make your workout fun! Finding the right type of exercise is a must. Try new activates and workouts, and switch up your routine to keep you motivated. The more engaged you are in your workout, the more likely you’ll be to show up day after day.

If you’re looking to improve your overall health and find a natural way to cope with daily stress, find some activities that your boost mood. Positive emotional benefits of exercise await on the other side of an intense bike ride, a long run, a night of dancing, or a competitive tennis match. Make your move toward better mental health today.

Dieting fills your thoughts with food—what you can eat, and, especially, what you can’t. It can also be exhausting and detrimental to your health and weight-management goals. Intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating helps shift your mind from asking “what can I eat” to “when is it best for me to eat.”

The transition is more than dislocating one issue and entrenching another. Focusing your feeding to specific times and incorporating measured intervals of fasting has shown benefits for weight and overall health. This has turned intermittent fasting (sometimes abbreviated IF) into a topic that keeps growing in popularity—from the health-conscious to the general public.

It’s time to go beyond the buzz to explore what this unique approach to eating is, has to offer, and how to start intermittent fasting.

What is Intermittent Fasting?

Proponents of the IF way of life say it’s a silver bullet for a whole host of health goals, while detractors dismiss the approach as just the latest fad—or worse, a “starvation diet.”

The concept of intermittent fasting itself is quite simple: consume food within a limited number of hours—also known as your “feeding window”—and abstain from eating and drinking most beverages during the other hours of the day.

IF has several eating schedules—you’ll dive into those later. You can even call it “time-restricted eating”—shifting focus to the eating part of the equation. No matter the name or schedule, the underlying philosophy of feast/fast cycles provides benefits, as well as a contrast to average diet types.

Is Intermittent Fasting Just Another Diet?

Not only is intermittent fasting not a fad diet, it’s not even really a diet. It doesn’t contain a prescribed list of foods to avoid or eat. Instead, the concept of periodic fasting is closer to a shift in lifestyle. And it’s been around for a long time. Human history is stuffed with examples of cycles of feasting and fast. The reason it seems strange or fad-like is that IF sidesteps common weight-loss maxims.

If you’ve ever struggled even slightly with your weight, you’ve likely heard some version of the idiom, “eat less and move more.” It’s understandable to think this logic makes perfect sense—burn more calories than you consume and you’ll lose weight. It’s the simple math of calorie balance that makes weight-management seem easy. But for most the simplicity and ease turns out to be mostly theoretical.

The human body is complex, and recent research shows that calorie consumption is only one factor at play when it comes to weight loss or gain. What else is there then? Every function in the human body is controlled by hormones. And a key hormone that influences weight gain is insulin.

How Does Intermittent Fasting Work?

The pancreas’ most powerful hormone—insulin—increases in your body whenever you eat. Insulin stimulates the absorption of glucose into muscle, fat, and liver cells. The cells either use this glucose for energy or it is converted to fat for long-term storage. This fact isn’t necessarily bad—having energy storage for lean times is necessary for human survival.

The inverse is also true of insulin: when you aren’t eating, blood glucose levels remain lower and levels of the hormone drop. This sparks your body to burn more stored fat as fuel when your body demands energy. And for those looking to lose weight, burning fat is a goal and a very good thing.

Obese people typically have higher insulin levels than folks within normal weight ranges. This is usually because their bodies are less sensitive to insulin, so it takes more insulin to get the same effect in the body.

Exercise has long been the go-to method for increasing insulin sensitivity, and in turn reducing levels of the hormone in the body. Research has also shown that intermittent fasting is another tool you can use to reduce insulin resistance.

Most traditional diets only take aim at improving what you eat or restricting calories, but without also addressing when you eat and how often you eat has its own benefits. Intermittent fasting helps lower your persistent insulin levels. This encourages your body to turn its stored fat into energy after burning through the sugars the body usually uses as fuel.

Along with rebuilding your body’s healthy response to insulin, intermittent fasting also helps you limit calories. That’s the basis of all weight-loss techniques. And intermittent fasting is another solution to help you burn more calories than you take in.

Experience the Benefits of Intermittent Fasting

If skipping a meal sounds hard, there’s plenty to help you push through. Here are some of the wide-ranging health benefits that can help propel you through the occasional cravings:

  1. Weight Loss: This the primary goal of many intermittent fasters. Evidence and testimonials back this benefit, but it’s not a quick fix. Long term, reduced calorie intake and lower insulin levels can help you manage your weight. But achieving the amount of weight you want to lose may not happen immediately. Your patience can pay off, though.
  2. Fat Burning: You’ve likely heard that if you don’t eat multiple times a day, your body will hold onto everything you eat because it thinks it’s starving. In other words, if you eat more, you’ll weigh less. Huh? Fasting has been around for thousands of years. Ancient human ancestors’ sporadic access to food, means the human body had to adapt to times of feast and famine. So when you’re fasted to the point of glycogen (stored sugars) depletion, your body burns fat. This change of fuel is important for weight loss, altering body composition, and supports overall wellness—from cardiovascular health to more optimal sleep.
  3. Support for Metabolic Health: Intermittent fasting aims to help normalize your body’s relationship to insulin. Sensitivity to the important hormone is important because it helps maintain blood sugar levels. Studies have suggested intermittent fasting can help support a more normal insulin sensitivity. That means evidence points to periods of fasting helping maintain balanced insulin levels and support healthy blood-sugar outcomes.
  4. Triggering Autophagy: When people choose to fast for non-weight reasons, it’s usually tied to autophagy. This cellular process is your body’s way to cleanup and manage cell damage. A variety of stressors—environmental, nutritional, and fasting—prompt your cells to basically take out the trash. This recycling program for damaged proteins helps supports optimal cellular health.
  5. Better Cognitive Function: Your brain burns a lot of calories. But that doesn’t mean fasting will dampen your cognitive fire. Actually, quite the opposite. Intermittent fasting has ties to many brain benefits—from clearer thinking and memory help to protection and support for neural growth.
  6. Improvements in Your Relationship with Food and Your Body: Diets make you almost obsess about food. Fasting periodically allows you to step back and consider food from a slight remove. If you only eat a limited amount of times, what you eat needs to be worth it. This can help you focus on healthy, delicious foods. Intermittent fasting also doesn’t judge food choices—so you can also escape the guilt of a slip-up. Fasting can connect you to your body. It helps you learn to listen to your hormonal signals about food—when you’re hungry and when you’re full.

Choose Your Own Fasting Adventure with Flexible Eating Schedules

Dieting can feel very inflexible. Eat this, don’t eat that. But food flexibility isn’t the only customizable aspect of intermittent fasting. There are many popular feeding-and-fasting schedules for you to pick from. Each offers slightly different challenges and benefits, so you can find what works best for your goals and your body.

You can look at fasting as a separation of hours feeding and fasting. Some common ratios are: 16:8, 18:6, and 20:4: The first number is your hours of fasting per day. The second is your eating window. Starting with a 16-hour fast is usually best for beginners.

Instead of focusing on hours you’re feeding or fasting, you can think about it in terms of meals. Two meals a day goes well with a 16:8 timeframe. That means skipping one meal—breakfast or dinner. With one meal a day, you’re further concentrating your eating to allow for longer fasts. You can choose the meal that works best for you. Also know you can add a snack or dessert if need be—just keep your feeding window short.

Alternate Day Fasting (ADF) is as simple as it sounds—cycling between days of feeding and fasting. That doesn’t make your feeding day a cheat-day eating extravaganza. But you should eat at least two meals a day when you can. Modified ADF involves doing a meal or snacks totaling 500 calories on your fast day.

You can even approach intermittent fasting on a weekly basis with non-consecutive fast days. Popular options involve choosing to eat five days and fast two, or going for four feeding and three fasting days. It allows some normalcy on feeding days and can help accommodate social pressures. Fasts on 5-2 or 4-3 optimally last 36 hours. That means eating dinner and waiting until lunch on your next feed day (two days later) to eat again.

Extended fasts are used sparingly. They go for 24-72 hours—a long time, which explains their more occasional nature. Fasting for such long periods is not for beginners and shouldn’t be attempted until you are fat-adapted and able to better read your body during fasts. They also should be done with proper precautions in place.

How to Start Intermittent Fasting—8 Quick Tips

  1. Decide your eating window: Be realistic about what’s important and where you can make the sacrifice to fast. Also, be honest about where it’s non-negotiable. Is it best to eat in the morning? Would you rather only eat with your family or friends? Social considerations are important. Intermittent fasting is flexible, so you can tailor it to your life instead of letting a string of exceptions hamper your progress.
  2. Educate yourself: You’ve come this far—so you’re off to a great start. Read more about your chosen fasting option to understand more about the science behind it. Plenty of information is available from those more experienced in intermittent fasting. Use their wisdom to learn where mistakes can be made. Also check out this helpful blog about IF challenges.
  3. Fast clean: That means no cream or sugar in your coffee. The point of the fast is to avoid spiking your insulin.Sticking to unsweetened tea, coffee, and lots of plain water are your best bets. Even flavored, zero-calorie options could ramp up your appetite. And that rookie mistake can make you feel hungrier than you were before.
  4. Open your window wisely: Plan how you’ll open your window, because your hunger could complicate or cloud your ability to choose wisely. Don’t go full bore after a longer fast. Start small. Listen to your body. Leading with foods that are high protein and high fat are great options—but find what works for you. If you aren’t mindful about how you open your window, consequences could await. You can be headed for gastric distress and a trip to the bathroom.
  5. Proper refeeding is as important as fasting: The amount of eating and quality of food are key to help your body make it through your next fast. You need to have an eight-hour window after a longer fast. During that time eat nutritious foods full of the typical dietary targets—plant-based fats, lean protein, along with lots of vegetables and fruits.
  6. Turn to tech: Use apps to track your fast. Set alarms to remind you of the schedule you’re on. A smart scale is also a good way to keep track of your progress. Record notes about your experiences so you can pay attention to what works to open your window or beverages that inadvertently break your fast.
  7. Be patient: It takes time to become used to your new eating approach. Your body is adjusting—go easy on yourself. Journaling, taking pics, and celebrating non-scale victories can help you push through until you start fully seeing and feeling the benefits of intermittent fasting.
  8. Talk to your healthcare professional: Doctors are now more familiar with this approach to eating and can be helpful. They can also help you determine if fasting is right for you. A history of eating disorders, pregnancy or nursing, and being on certain medications may mean you should opt out of fasting or approach it carefully.

Weight loss is the most popular reason people exercise. But losing weight is far from the only exercise benefit. Working out can support the health of all aspects of your body.

Here’s a full-body overview of other exercise benefits. From your brain to lungs and joints, learn why you should exercise for more than weight loss.

Brain

Your body’s command center needs exercise just as much as your waistline does. Moving your body for a few minutes every day is a great way to keep your brain in shape.

The brain relies on building new connections between neurons so you can store important information throughout your life. This action of building new bridges between brain cells is called neuroplasticity, and it increases through exercise.

Scientists believe neuroplasticity and exercise are linked because of the increase in blood flow to the brain during physical activity. With plenty of blood and oxygen circulating in your brain, regions like the hippocampus can wire new neural pathways. This can help your memory adapt and continue to improve through your lifetime.

Aging is hard on your brain. So, exercise is one thing you can do to make the transition into later life more manageable. Regular exercise has been shown to support healthy recall skills and can slow the progression of age-related memory decline.

In one study, researchers noted that even light exercise and a minimum of 7,500 daily steps were associated with an increase in total brain volume. Higher brain volume can indicate enhanced neuroplasticity in the brain. That’s how exercise can help keep your mind and learning abilities sharp as you age.

If you want to exercise to boost your brain power, cardiovascular exercises are best. The bursts of movement during cardio elevate your heart rate and send blood pumping to all areas of your body—your brain included. Cardio doesn’t need to be intense to get the job done. Your brain will benefit from a regular evening walk, bike ride, or swim in the pool. Anything that pumps your blood is great for your brain.

Mood and Hormones

People that exercise can count on a better mood as their reward—not just weight loss. The link between mood and exercise is a strong one. And it can be a great motivator to work out more.

It all starts with aerobics. Faster paced, cardiovascular movements can reduce the amount of stress hormones circulating in your blood. These hormones (like adrenaline and cortisol) often  contribute to feelings of stress, anxiety, and worry. Too much of any stress hormone can even interfere with your sleep habits. This leaves you tired and unprepared to tackle your daily tasks.

Regular aerobic exercise does more than just decrease the presence of these stress hormones. Cardio and other blood-pumping workouts can even add in feel-good hormones to your bloodstream.

Endorphins are hormones produced by your brain in response to exercise. They act like natural painkillers and stress-relievers. Some people even call the rush of endorphins you experience after exercise a “runner’s high.”

Runner or not, you will like the way you feel when endorphins enter circulation. These mood-lifting biochemicals bring on a sense of euphoria and can even help combat anxiety and depression. In addition, they help you relax and calm down.

Let exercise be your go-to way to pick yourself up after a hard day. A light jog, game of tennis, or trip to the park with your family, is all you need to feel the effects of endorphins. At the same time, you’ll be reducing stress hormones and putting yourself at ease.

Heart

One of the first organs in your body to see the benefits of regular exercise is your heart. Your cardiovascular system becomes more efficient as you grow fitter. Treat your heart to some endurance training and exercise for the health of your ticker.

As your fitness level improves, you might notice your resting heart rate slow a bit. That’s because exercise makes your heart stronger and more efficient at pumping blood. A slower heart rate is a sign that your heart doesn’t need to work as hard to circulate your blood. Each heartbeat packs a little more force and pumps blood with less energy expended.

Exercise benefits your heart in other ways, too. Regular physical activity is linked to reducing fatty plaque build-up in arteries. This thickening and hardening of vessel walls can make it harder for your heart to push blood to the places it needs to be. Keeping arteries clear of hardened fat is another perk of working out.

Cardio exercises are the kind of workouts your heart needs. You’ll know you’re doing cardio when you can feel your heartbeat start to quicken. Jumping-jacks, plyometrics, running, and other fast-moving exercises are great options for cardio. Take the opportunity to work-out for your heart the next time you exercise.

Lungs

Tough workouts can leave you feeling breathless. But exercising on a regular basis can help combat this feeling of breathlessness. Aerobic movements can increase the volume of air your lungs can take in with each breath. This measurement is called lung capacity. As lung capacity increases, so does the amount of oxygen available to the muscles powering your workout.

Try breathing exercises to boost your lung capacity. You can incorporate them into your daily exercise or practice them while resting. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing and pursed-lips breathing are two methods you can use to expand your lung capacity.


Just Breathe

To do diaphragmatic breathing, place you hand on your abdomen just beneath your rib cage. Breathe deeply and focus on expanding your abdomen and stomach as you inhale. To exhale, purse your lips together like you would to suck through a straw or give someone a kiss. Push the breath out of your pursed lips slowly.


Bones and Joints

A common myth surrounding joint health is that regular exercise can lead to damaged joints. Consistent, moderate exercise can actually increase bone mass and strength, while protecting joints from swelling, pain, and erosion.

Stronger joints start with stronger bones. When muscles are activated during physical activity, they push and pull on the bones they attach to. Tension from working muscles encourages bone cells to multiply and thicken. As a result, your bone density improves.

This relationship between bone strength and exercise is important. It means that the more consistently you exercise, the stronger your bones become. And the strong bones you develop through regular movement will fare better as you age.

Another reason you should exercise for more than weight loss is to relieve stress on your joints. Swelling and stiffness can happen when your joints aren’t cared for properly. Discomfort in the joints might make exercise seem like a chore.

Don’t give in to the temptation to skip a workout. Movement and regular use of your joints can help them feel great. Daily exercise is a great way to reduce aching and promote strength in your joints.

Bodyweight exercises like push-ups, lunges, squats, and burpees are excellent bone-strengthening activities. Try to hit each muscle groups when you exercise to ensure every bone and joint benefits from your workout.

Immune System

Entire body systems, like your immune system, thrive when you exercise regularly. That’s because exercise has perks that can help keep you healthy.

Exercise promotes the turnover and exchange of leukocytes (white blood cells.) Leukocytes are part of your innate immune response and fight against pathogens that invade your body. When you exercise, the leukocytes that protect you from getting sick are regenerated.

Your immune system needs regular physical activity to defend you from sickness later in life, too. It turns out that along with the rest of your body, your immune system ages, too. Exercise stimulates immune activity that helps keep healthy and free from infection. A habit of everyday exercise can help you maintain immunity in the face of possible age-related decline.

To exercise for your immune system, find an activity that promotes circulation. Aerobic exercises and full-body movements trigger the white-blood-cell turnover that maintains your immunity. Dancing, jogging, tennis, and volleyball are great ways to move your whole body and support your immune defenses.

Working Out for Your Whole Body

Moving your muscles on a regular basis does wonders for your overall wellness. Remember, you can exercise for more than weight loss. So, try to find another factor that motivates you to exercise.

Incorporate a variety of exercises that target different health and exercise benefits. Add cardio and aerobic movements to bolster your heart, brain, and mood. Stretching and deep breathing practices work for your joint and lung health. Find a fitness groove that works for your whole body, and start working out for more than the bathroom scale.

COVID-19 has people are stuck in their houses, video conferencing from their kitchen tables, creating home workouts, and staying distant to stay safe. Joe De Sena, the founder and CEO of Spartan, has another suggestion.

“Socially distance from your kitchen.”

If you’ve read about or participated in a Spartan Race, it’s no surprise De Sena wants people outside and moving. It’s a key part of his Spartan doctrine. To dig deeper into De Sena’s health and fitness philosophy—with a focus on Spartan preparation at home–Ask the Scientists’ Austin Winegar conducted a wide-ranging interview.

Inside Joe De Sena’s Spartan Mindset

Austin Winegar: What parts of the body would you focus on for Spartan preparation? And why do you think those are the most important areas?

Joe De Sena: The number one thing we’re motivated by is the avoidance of discomfort. There are a few of us that are outliers or maniacs that wake up early and get after it. So, my answer to that question has to be very digestible, very possible for folks to engage in. I would say, at a minimum, it’s 30 burpees, 30 of the best pullups you could muster up, and it’s a one-mile walk or run. Obviously, I can go much deeper than that, but I’ll scare people if I do. So, I’ve tried to tone down my message to something really scalable. Walk, crawl, whatever—one mile. Park a little further away from the grocery store when you shopping. Anybody could do 30 burpees in two minutes—even stretch it out to three minutes. And if you can’t do a pull-up, jump up 30 times. If you just did that, it’d change your whole life.

 

AW: Digestible things that are realistic is your number one recommendation?

JD: It’s gotta be realistic. It’s gotta be something people will actually do. I could give you a giant list that looks like one of those scrolls a king would drop, of things I’d want people to do every day. But nobody’s doing it. I’ve been putting on races for 20 years. And for 10 of those years I used to have to lie to people and tell them they were coming to a barbecue, because they don’t want to do it. ‘Joe, why are we getting up at 5 a.m. for a barbecue?’ ‘Well, we gotta carry the barbecue up the mountain.’ Little did they know they were the ones that were going to be getting barbecued. True story. I’m not kidding.

I would also do hot yoga as often as I could. I would sit in a sauna post-workout. I would take cold showers. I would take stairs instead of elevators. I would carry a kettlebell. I do thousands of crunches. It depends on how far you want me to go with the answer to that question. Yes, I have opinions on physical fitness and diet, but you gotta give people bite-sized pieces.

 

AW: I’m inclined to agree with your approach. Rather than it being one movement or exercise, it’s probably more important to push whatever your current capabilities are and step it up more every day.

JD: I’d rather see you do it every day—seven days a week—than get after it once, buy a gym membership, go in for two weeks, then disappear for two months. Consistency is everything. Consistency in general, in everything, in life. Stick-to-it-ness. Write it down, be disciplined about it. Forget about motivation. Motivation is fleeting. You might have it, or you might not. Just create a narrative that you constantly talk about in the public. ‘I do 30 burpees every day. I walk one mile, no matter what—rain, snow, shine. I do my 30 pullups even though I’m not good at one pullup. Every single day.’ You say it over and over and before you know it, if you don’t do it, you’ll be a fraud. You gotta do it.

AW: What about diet? Do you follow the same strictness?

JD: I would say if you had the Joe Spartan food pyramid, the very top would be animal protein. The middle would be nuts, oils, and avocados. And the bottom would be veggies.

I would say you must, with all three meals, have a small bowl of salad. And that doesn’t mean covered in ranch dressing, but raw veggies with every meal. If you’re eating eggs—it sounds crazy—but I’ve actually acquired a taste for salad and eggs and sprouts. I don’t need any dressing.

 

AW: What about Spartan-specific preparation? How much preparation should people do in the weeks leading up to an event?

JD: Do you want to win it?

 

AW: Let’s say you want to be competitive—upper half—but don’t need to be the first-place person.

JD: We have multiple distance events—three miles, eight miles, 13 miles, 26 miles. Why don’t we keep this to three miles. If your staple training diet was what we said—30-30-1—if you did three days a week of hot yoga on top. ‘Why would we do hot yoga, Joe?’ Because the only thing that’s going to stop you from doing well is injury. So, to avoid injury we have to keep you mobile and flexible. I’m a big believer in that. I would get one five-mile run in a week, and I would spend some time on a rope. Out at a Spartan race, a lot of people struggle with the rope. The pullups will get you through the other hanging things. You’re going to need some grip strength, so I would spend a lot of time on a rope every week.

Let’s say you gotta do 10 rope climbs a week. One five mile run. And three classes of hot yoga. On top of that basic 30-30-1. You’d crush it. You’d do great. And fitness starts in the kitchen, so you want to be eating healthy. You don’t want to be doubling up on chocolate cake while you’re doing this.

 

AW: How do people set up ropes in smaller spaces?

JD: You could literally hang it off of a pullup bar. It’s not going to be ideal, but if you had no other choice, you’d start sitting down. In the beginning, you aren’t going to be able to get off your butt with your legs straight out like a gymnast and climb up. But you could leave your heels on the ground and work your way up to a standing position and work your way back down to a sitting position. You do it enough times to where your grip strength is able to get you standing up and sitting down.

AW: What’s people’s usual weakness?

JD: Grip strength, in general, is going to break you in a Spartan Race because there’s so many things to hold onto if you’re not used to it. Also, on the rope, it’s technique. You could deal with the lack of technique if you can get your hands strong enough. You’ll get sucked up in the vortex of the people and the music and you’ll get up that rope and ring the bell.

 

AW: What are the bodyweight exercises you’d have people do?

JD: We do them all. Reverse lunges. Leonidas burpees—which is a double perfect pushup at the bottom. Inverted pushups. I love all kinds of yoga poses. I’ve basically taken a bunch of yoga poses and turned them into callisthenic exercises. So, I’m working on mobility and flexibility at the same time I’m getting a workout.

 

AW: Why is a healthy approach to life important for people, in general, and not just those looking forward to Spartan Races?

JD: I’m glad you asked that question, because it’s the biggest thing we didn’t talk about. You guys have watched boxing matches throughout your life. The interesting thing about most of those boxers is they fall out of shape. As soon as they get a date on the calendar, they start getting in shape for the fight. And most people are like that. If they don’t have something on the calendar, they don’t get after it.

When I think about why I started Spartan, I recognized 30 years ago if I didn’t have a date on the calendar, I wasn’t training hard enough. I’d go through the motions, but as soon as there’s a date on the calendar—a fight that’s on the calendar, whatever that fight means in your life—you get after it. You work out a little harder. You put down that cookie. You go to bed a little earlier. You get serious. That’s why it’s so important—it doesn’t have to be a Spartan Race, though I wish it were—but it could be anything hard, anything challenging that forces people to change their habits for the better.

Life and health all come down to blood flow and circulation and what you’re putting in your mouth. So, I think of a body like a swimming pool. A swimming pool is 20,000 gallons of water, and the human body is seven gallons of water—depending on your size. A swimming pool has a pump and filter. You have a pump and filter. And a 20,000-gallon pool, if I started throwing French fries and coffee drinks and ketchup and all kinds of things in that pool, and then I turned the pump off and the filters got dirty, it turns black pretty quick. So, we’re expecting this little swimming pool, our body, with this little pump and a few filters to keep clean with all the stuff we keep stuffing into our mouths. Then we aren’t running the pump because we’re sitting on the couch and we’re not cleaning the filters. So, that’s why it’s important for everybody.

Start Your Spartan Journey to Better Health

Now that you’re pumped and ready to turn up the heat on your fitness journey, start with Joe’s 30-30-1 advice. Then try to build out with more home workouts you can try to supplement the Spartan advice you just received.

For more information on Spartan Races and preparation, head over to their site.

Individual sports take mental toughness. They demand you set personal goals, manage stress, build self-confidence, and develop focus. Team sports build comradery and group empathy, but it takes a strong mindset to compete—at any level—alone on the court. These hurdles, once conquered, make the benefits of individual sports plentiful.

Consider swimming for example. You determine your goals in the water. Do you focus on your stroke or how many laps you want to swim? The water shuts out the world, leaving you with only your stroke and your thoughts. Left without distractions (earbuds or a monitor to watch), this is a good time to focus on yourself and explore why you’re swimming in the first place.

The challenge is to find the mental toughness to keep swimming—digging deep for inner motivation. It’s important to identify why you’re competing and how to improve your performance. Personal goals can range from setting a world record to improving upon last week’s swim.

Let’s take a deep dive into individual sports, how they develop mental toughness, and the ways error management benefits your performance.

Benefits of Individual Sports

Humans are inherently social. Like most mammals, social tendencies develop through interaction with others. Sports help develop social hierarchies and positive self-esteem in a group context. Playing with others is a way to channel aggression into constructive activities.

Individual sports address different aspects of personal development. Athletes who participate in traditional and non-traditional solo sports—like tennis, swimming, rock climbing, cycling, or bowling—don’t rely on teammates for motivation or performance assessments. They set and pursue their own goals. Bearing the responsibility for achievement, solo athletes must push themselves to establish a healthy, competitive mindset. This can be as simple as setting small, obtainable goals. Or in the grander scheme, it can mean doggedly pursuing more ambitious ones.

Most sports help develop fine and gross motor skills, agility, endurance, and hand-eye coordination. But many more unique benefits of individual sports are revealed to dedicated participants. That’s because solo sports also require an additional layer of mental development, along with physical fitness. Your success and failures are yours alone. As you embrace and overcome personal setbacks, strengthening your coping skills and resilience, you develop self-esteem and confidence.

Long hikes, easy swims, or bike rides are all individual sports great for relaxation and reducing stress. They can clear your mind, offer perspective, and allow time for self-reflection. Any form of exercise supports cardiovascular and pulmonary health, can help reduce stress, and build confidence for future exercise.

Mental Toughness and the Tools for Solo Sport Success

With non-competitive sports—like trail running, rock climbing, or weightlifting—individuals set goals and determine how to achieve them. Take a trail runner participating in a 50-mile race. The primary goal is to reach the finish line. But to accomplish it, the runner must meet a series of benchmarks ranging from strategy (pacing, hydration, stretching) to sessions (breaking the run into segments). Each runner must identify personal strengths and pitfalls and create a running plan to best meet his/her needs.

To prepare for the 50-mile race, the runner has to train physically and mentally. Taxing events like ultramarathons require a strong, healthy mindset during the training and competition phase. Mental toughness is how you respond to discomfort or manage an obstacle or challenge. The key to developing mental toughness is to strengthen your willingness and channel optimism.

Willingness is your commitment to endure physical challenges and power through discomfort. Multiple factors determine willingness, but the best indicator is having a specific goal you want to accomplish. If the trail runner can envision crossing the finish line at the end of the 50-mile race, they can develop the mental fortitude to push through discomfort.

Optimism is the power to visualize and believe in your ability to reach your goal. It bridges the gap between where you are and where you want to be. Optimism shapes your short- and long-term goals. It’s motivation to train each day, coupled with the unyielding belief you’ll finish the race.

Mental toughness is developed through a willingness to do the hard work, combined with the optimism to believe you can achieve your goals. Just like your hands develop callouses from hours of work, mental toughness strengthens your competitive advantage while training and competing.


Solo, but Not Alone

Even when you compete for yourself, you still benefit from the support of coaches and teammates. Coaches share their expertise to help you to train and develop to your furthest potential. They guide your workouts and provide encouragement. And teammates give you a competitive edge. They help you set goals, breed healthy competition, and challenge you to work harder.


To Err is to Grow

Identifying errors while participating in solo sports is key to improvement. And the benefits go beyond just your performance while engaging in the activity. Golf is a good example for tracking errors during play.

Golf can be a frustrating game. Even if you’ve never played before, golf presents a serious of pitfalls that can put you in a foul mood. From errant tee shots to missed putts, it’s easy to play but extraordinarily difficult to master. Join a foursome for a full 18 holes and you’re not just competing against the other players—you’re challenging yourself.

Imagine it’s a beautiful morning and you’re teeing up on the first hole. You grab your golf club of choice. After a couple of practice swings, you adjust your glove and prepare for your first drive. You smoothly raise your club behind you, engaging a series of muscles (external abdominal obliques, gluteus maximus, pectoralis major, latissimus dorsi, and forearms), and swing.

If everything goes right, you’ll connect with the ball and send it flying towards the hole. The average golfer (76 percent of all amateurs) will swing a club 100 times through 18 holes. That’s 100 opportunities to analyze your performance in real time, make adjustments, and experience good and horrible shots.

Essentially, golf is a game of error monitoring—the process of assessing performance, making adjustments, and recognizing pitfalls. Researchers have studied focused attention (FA) and open monitoring (OM) meditation in conjunction with error monitoring. FA is your mind absorbing contextualized information in the moment. OM is your mind in a state of calm where it processes collected information. Evidence points toward a higher level of error monitoring when golfers can balance their FA and OM.

Golfers who can identify errors in their game are more likely to predict conditional stressors and self-regulate stress. By absorbing the moment, a golfer may have a better outcome (i.e. a more successful shot) than those who are indifferent to the situation. Specifically, when a golfer focuses on the shot ahead instead of the whole round of golf, they perform better and achieve a stronger level of overall satisfaction—even if the outcome is diminished performance.

Error monitoring is not only identified in golf. Numerous solo sports have real-time error monitoring. Mountain bikers make split-second decisions while navigating rocks, tree roots, and other obstacles. Kayakers experience the same immediate error monitoring maneuvering through rapids. Successful solo athletes have developed this common skillset to optimize their performance.

And the benefits are not limited to sports—developing error monitoring transcends to work and home life. Tracking your performance in real time can assist with decision making, organizational skills, and self-calming techniques.

Finding the Balance

Participating in solo sports is an opportunity to focus on yourself and your performance. Regular training can improve cardiovascular health, motor skills, and general health. In addition, the benefits of individual sports extend to improving your mental acuity for additional success.

From fly fishing to everyday life, balance shapes success. As you build up and come to rely on your own motivation, mental toughness, and error management, you’ll carry the personal skills to accomplish your goals. Individual sports can help your mental strength outside of the activity with improved mental focus which can assist in other aspects of your life.

Exercise and brain health are closely connected. That’s because your brain, like the muscles in your arms and legs, is strongest when you exercise regularly. And while there’s no machine in the gym to work your brain, it still reaps the benefits of physical activity.

Raising your heart rate perks your brain up, too. And moving your body is good for your weight and great for your memory. The brain benefits come from the increases in blood flow and oxygen that comes from regular exercise.

With lots of available blood and nutrients, your brain is fueled for optimal performance. Daily movement also allows new brain cells to develop while reinforcing neural pathways. Your memory improves through exercise, and physical activity helps maintain your cognitive health as you age.

Ready to up the intensity of your daily exercise to maximize your brain power? Start by checking out all the ways physical activity supports your brain health.

Science of Exercise and the Brain

Current research establishes the link between regular exercise and better brain function. As little as 30-to-45 minutes of movement each day is enough to trigger a cascade of memory-preserving benefits. Explore the five ways working out can support your cognitive skills.

1. Exercise Increases the Size of the Hippocampus

The area of your brain responsible for learning and verbal memory is called the hippocampus. When you exercise, your hippocampus increases in volume. It literally grows. Neurons in the hippocampus become denser, and connectivity in the region is reinforced through your physical activity.

The hippocampus is the first region of your brain to dull with age. Exercising regularly helps keep it sharp and protects it from the normal, age-related decline.

Exercise also ramps up activity in this memory and learning center. Just 10 minutes of mild-to-moderate exertion is enough to strengthen the connection between neurons and the memory-focused section of the brain.

This improved connectivity in the hippocampus can lead to better performance on memory and cognitive skills tests. Short spurts of exercise—which may fit better in your busy life anyway—can even boost recall. This could include remembering where you parked your car, or what appointments you have during the day. Think about your hippocampus and all the good you are doing it the next time you hit the gym.

2. Working Out Reduces Stress Hormones that Inhibit Brain Activity

Many people seek solace from stress in a walk or jog. If you’re stressed, your brain is, too. And exercise is a powerful tool for relaxing your mind.

Physical activity reduces the stress hormones (cortisol and norepinephrine specifically) that build up in your brain when you’re worried and anxious. Too many stress hormones can make you feel sluggish and contribute to brain fog. This can even slow your cognitive skills and dampen brain power.

Bust through the haze of stress by planning regular exercise. The endorphins released in your brain after exercise clear away stress hormones and boost your mood. Exercise and endorphins also stimulate growth in the hippocampus—as you learned above.

Your brain and body need exercise to relax. Think clearly and improve your mood by prioritizing regular exercise.

3. Sleep Improves With Exercise

Another way exercise improves your mind is by helping you sleep well at night. Challenging your body every day makes it easier to fall asleep. And it leads to the kind of sleep that helps you feel rested and recharged come morning.

Restful sleep also improves mental clarity and executive function. You need good sleep to focus, make decisions, and process your emotions. It provides much-needed time off for your brain to rest and prepare for the day ahead—even though your brain still does work during sleep. Your brain is at full capacity after a good night’s sleep. Cognitive skills are sharpened and memory is reinforced. Start working out for the sake of your sleep and the strength of your brain.

4. Aerobic Exercise Triggers the Release of Growth Factors

Your memory relies on the neural pathways and connections deep inside your brain. Proteins called growth factors are necessary for your mind to create new connections and reinforce old ones. Lucky for you, regular exercise is an easy way to increase the amount of growth factors available in your brain.

Moving your body triggers the release of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This protein helps your brain generate new cells and preserves aging ones. BDNF is also responsible for developing new blood vessels in and around the brain. This allows more nutrient and blood circulation in the area.

If you want to help your brain grow and receive the blood and nutrition it needs, start moving. BDNF levels increase whenever your exercise, even for a few minutes. That means giving your brain support only takes a few minutes of activity.

5. Regular Movement Slows Aging of the Brain

Growing older doesn’t mean your brain has to slow down. There are lifestyle measures you can take now to preserve your memory and keep your mind sharp. A lifelong habit of regular exercise can help you keep a healthy brain later in life.

A study of the tie between memory and exercise illustrates this well. Research shows older adults who exercised consistently in their youth outperformed their peers on memory and cognitive skills tests. Their scores matched most closely with other test takers up to 10 years younger.

Since you are only as old as you feel, keep your body and mind feeling young by prioritizing regular exercise throughout your life.

Pick Either Aerobic and Anaerobic Exercise for a Healthy Brain

Your brain isn’t too picky about the exercise it needs to thrive. All you need to do is ramp up blood circulation to start seeing improvements. Like you learned above, the brain benefits of exercise come from increased blood flow to the region.

High-energy activities like tennis, cycling, swimming, and soccer elevate your heart rate above its resting norm. These movements are considered aerobic exercise and are great at quickly moving blood through your body. Aerobic exercise and brain health go hand in hand. Fast-paced movements increase blood flow in your head and neck, supplying your brain with plenty of oxygen and nutrients.

But it doesn’t have to be all aerobic exercise all the time. Anaerobic exercises produce similar brain-boosting results. Resistance movements and strength training are also great ways to work out for your brain.

You don’t even have to go all out for your brain to see benefits. Activities like yoga, tai chi, and other low-impact sports hone your concentration skills and focus while lowering stress levels.

Variety of movement is great for your body and brain. Developing multi-faceted workouts that include strength training, balance, low-impact, and aerobic movements should be your goal.

See this relationship in action yourself. Protect the health of your brain and body with regular physical activity. Exercise daily and notice how your brain responds.