• Nicholas Kent


Updated: Oct 7, 2021

Just a little handstand practice, and then this...

It still mesmerizes me the power of movement to reliably and with such immediacy alter your mind state. Nothing beyond the grasp of ordinary consciousness, but profound enough to really shift the direction of your mental momentum to have meaningful and long-lasting effect down a path that you wouldn't have found yourself down had it not been for the micro-intervention of movement.

Elaborating further on the why's and how's of movement - specifically deliberate movement or physical exercise, whatever terminology you prefer - and it's effect on our brain, our thinking, our mental and emotional state both short and long-term, the effects on neurodegenerative disease as well as mental illness is no mean feat. There's an abundance of evidence out there, so it's not like it's hard to find. It's just that there's so much evidence out there, the reading, the tangents, the avenues of discovery are endless. That, combined with the (ironically) brain-hurting jargon and neuroscientific mumbo-jumbo in these articles can make for a tough time for anybody.

In a nutshell, physical exercise is promotional for brain health and function by way of...

Cellular and molecular factors of the brain. Cellular factors being the brain cells - the physical matter/internal structures of the brain. Kind of like the size, strength and density of a spiders web. The molecular factors being the chemical neurotransmitters (tiny molecules that get synchronistically released, transported and absorbed from brain cell to brain cell) that permit communication within the brain. This would be how the spiders web network might send messages around and through the web. Essentially, the bigger, stronger and denser the physical brain matter (brain cells) x the cleaner, faster and more efficient the lines of communication (neurotransmitter molecules), the better off we are. Physical exercise is a powerful agent for these benefits.

Neuroplasticity. A newish buzz word probably heard all over the wellness/human optimization crowd. To my chagrin, they're correct though. Amongst all the aforementioned benefits, NP is the function where the brain kind of "adapts and moulds" to suit whatever experience or learning we undertake (Bavelier & Neville, 2002). In a way, it's like the biological algorithm, in that when we do something, learn something, practice something, hear something - essentially any feedback and stimulus to our system, our brain is constantly changing (physically and chemically) with this input in order to make itself (and by extension, you) better versed, better equipped and better skilled at that stimulus or thing.

Easy example - if we learn, say, juggling, then we start out with some practice drills and the learning curve begins. We are initially terrible, then with perseverance and consistency we slowly improve. The practice drills are the input, the stimulus. The desired outcome is to be awesome. The perseverance and consistency towards awesomeness is the strength of that stimulus. The brain then understands to modify itself, learn, equip and rebuild the cellular structures within, enhance the communication pathways and become more efficient at executing the act of juggling. A new network of connections or linkages within the brain - which is synonymous to a new skill program - is being physically formed and is strengthened and honed with continuous and strong exposure or practice at this skill. This is neuroplasticity in a nutshell, and it is happening at all times with each and every experience we have. Our brains are constantly adapting, changing and tweaking in real time.

Pretty cool?

Physical exercise. Again - a powerful agent for this function and seems to be a key driver in neuroplastic adaptations within the brain.

Even cooler...

Brain & Cerebral Reserve. A big thing with neuroplasticity, albeit it still seems to be kind of a hypothesis right now, is a concept called "brain & cerebral reserve." Brain and Cerebral reserves essentially being how robust your grey matter is, be it by sheer physical volume of structure and cellular density (brain reserve) or the quality of connectivity and communication acuity within the brains structures (cerebral reserve), i.e. how sharp and strong the signals are transmitting across neurons/brain cells when we think, move, feel and generally make sense of the world (Shaffer, 2016). So with these high reserves, we're essentially more protected or able to mitigate neural decline with an overshoot of brain power and size - more brain power than we need which eventually pays off by kind of slowing or hampering the ageing process and natural neurological degeneration - remaining sharp, capable and clear for longer as we age. Good news if you're of a pretty regular standard of health. Quite interesting and possibly better news if you're predisposed or already suffer versions of neurological disease, such as Alzheimer's, with higher cognitive reserves seeming to cause a delayed manifestation of symptoms like memory loss (Stern 2012, Mandolesi et al. 2017).

So, neuroplasticity is the brains' key feature of adaptation, growth and efficiency, and brain/cerebral reserve (brain size, power and robustness) is what we want.

Physical Exercise =>Neuroplasticity =>Brain/Cerebral Reserve

Enough said.

These are some of the 'nuts and bolts' of how our brains operate and respond mechanistically when we exercise - the neurophysiology of it all. But how do these responses actually serve us in real time? I alluded earlier to things like clearer and sharper thinking as well as potential attenuation against neurodegenerative disease - essentially slowing down brain decay. But that stuff, whilst good to know, is far flung. Why ought I go for a jog around the block when I feel a bit sluggish or generally blue right now? Why should breaking a mild sweat, elevating the heart-rate or limbering the muscles and joints be a first order intervention when we dip, need some clarity, or need to mediate some internal demons?

Wellbeing. When we get past what's happening at the neurophysiological level, when we get past the hardware, the said mumbo-jumbo then we wade into the grey esoteric waters of our consciousness, states of mind, mood and emotion. The qualitative, the subjective, the fleeting. This is mysterious stuff and getting into it is beyond this thing today. But it's important to recognize the strange, usually reliable and most importantly, powerful, influence that physical exercise can enact on the fluid concept of mind-state. First there's simple stuff that applies to anybody and everybody. Basic things we've all heard of like better general mood, improved feeling of control, more positive social interactions and greater opportunities for fun and enjoyment (Mandolesi et al. 2018). But there are deeper and more permanent intrinsic factors that come into play that we should really pay attention to. Things that probably have a greater sway on a central sense of being on the largest personal scale - our dimensions of self. Loosely put...

  • self-concept (how you generally know or understand yourself)

  • self-esteem (how much you like or dislike yourself)

  • self-efficacy (how confident you are about your abilities/effectiveness to deal with stuff)

These factors are kinda deterministic in how we are in the world around us in many ways - our relationship to ourselves and our abilities. Physical exercise as a functionary to long-term, deep and more permanent positive effects of self-understanding - the altering of the lens with which we see ourselves I feel is such a critical component to one's navigation in the complexities of the world and our lives. A better understanding, confidence and general liking of yourself.

As somebody whom understands these themes deeply, it cannot be under-said what a gift this can be...

Star-Mode. Then there's the more acute, a little shift in gears, like what I was talking about at the start - the mesmerizing quality of exercise and movement to change you momentarily. Usually toward a better, more productive, sharper, more focused and happier version. If the aforementioned benefits of improved affect and efficacy are like an ambient rosy coloured filter to which we operate, then the more acute and abrupt effects of improved cognition are like the speed, quickness, agility and sharpness of our mental faculties when processing information, undertaking tasks, learning and generally doing stuff. To put a label on it, the acute effects of physical exercise in regards to your more immediately-noticeable mental characteristics are things like improved attention, better working memory, verbal fluency, decision making and inhibitory control (our ability to cut out the useless bullshit) (Chang et al. 2012). Henceforth the reason that when we tend to blow out the cobwebs in whatever fashion, be it a brisk walk, some yoga,10 push-ups, some quarantine Jane Fonda or a deadlift 5 rep-max, we are usually resultantly invigorated, energized, clear and generally just more "up for it" pretty soon after.

This is the mesmerizing quality of physical exercise. Like a real-life special elixir that casts a spell and shifts us into "star-mode" AKA Super Mario Bros. Becoming mildly, yet noticeably invincible for maybe just a little stretch, but long enough and it still surprises me every time it takes this effect. Whether I feel dull, sluggish, cannot find the words or cannot summon interest, if I move my body, elicit a physiological response and alter my internal state my mind will light up and very quickly follow. The pharmacokinetics of any like-substance synthetically would be of such premium that it'd probably be Nobel worthy, yet movement is right there for us, whenever we want and usually for free.

I'll save the handstands and my wrists for the rest of today and whilst I still might not be able to stick one consistently yet, the blog piece was the real pleasant detour. Came searching for one thing, created something totally different.

Movement truly is a wonder-drug...


Bavelier, D. & Neville, H.J. (2002). Cross-Modal Plasticity: Where and How? Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 3, 443-452. doi: 10.1038/nrn848

Chang, Y.K. et al. (2012). The effects of acute exercise on cognitive performance: A meta-analysis. Brain Res.1453:87-101

Mandolesi et al. (2018). Effects of Physical Exercise on Cognitive Function & Wellbeing: Biological and Psychological Benefits. Frontiers in Psychology. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00509

Mandolesi et al. (2017). Environmental Factors Promoting Neural Plasticity; insights from animal & human studies. Neural Plast. 2017, 1-10. doi: 10.1155/2017/7219461

Shaffer, J. (2016). Neuroplasticity & Clinical Practice: Building Brain Power for Health. Frontiers in Psychology. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01118

Stern, Y. (2002). What is cognitive reserve? Theory and research application of the reserve concept. J. Int. Neuropsychol. Soc. 8, 448-460. doi: 10.1017/S1355617702813248

Stern, Y. (2012). Cognitive reserve in ageing and Alzheimer's disease. Lancet Neurol. 11, 1006-1012. doi:10.1016/S1474-4422(12)70191-6