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How To Work Your Brain In Your Workout (and why it matters) - If you exercise your brain in your workout, you'll get even more mental benefit.

We all know that exercise is good for us. It’s about the best thing you can do for your brain and body.

But did you know that if you exercise in ways that disengage your brain from actively participating, you’re getting the physical benefits of increased blood flow and oxygen to the brain and the release of feel-good, stress-reducing neurochemicals, but you’re losing out on major opportunities for mental gains?

While doing anything physical is still better than sitting on the couch, using exercise machines that involve a limited range of identical, repetitive movements takes your brain offline, asking very little of it. Doing the same thing over and over again, in life and in your fitness routine, is the enemy of brain health and physical neurological movement, flexibility, and control. It’s like asking your brain to solve the same crossword puzzle a thousand times.

When working out on machines, most people slip in their earbuds and pay little attention physically, visually, mentally, or kinesthetically to how they’re moving their bodies, which gets the brain involved. To give your brain a workout during your workout, you want it to be constantly interpreting the input coming from your senses and consciously controlling your body and movements.

Getting Your Brain Involved In Your Workout

In his book, Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life, Dr. Michael Merzenich Ph.D., writes:

‘Senseless’ exercising is good for your strength and vitality and is known to help get more blood and oxygen to the brain; still, for exercising your brain as the controller of your movements, it’s largely a waste.”

Exercise routines that mix things up and ask your body to make a variety of movements using various muscles and skills: strength, flexibility, balance, agility, are going to be of much more benefit to your brain and body. You want to aim for a fitness regime that your brain literally cannot master and become too familiar with. An activity that requires you to think while moving, like Tai Chi, yoga, aerobics, Zumba, and choreographed dancing, is going to be the most beneficial for your brain.

Games like squash, tennis, and even ping-pong can offer brain benefits if taken seriously and to the point of challenging your skill. If bicycling, you’ll want to vary your travel routes, ride across different terrains, and connect with your surroundings while cycling. If running or walking, get outside when possible, forget the headphones, alter surfaces, paths, and scenery, and even take your shoes off, once in a while.

Your feet were designed to actually feel the ground beneath them. Lightly covered or bare feet provide the brain with a wealth of information, challenge fine motor control and balance, and force your brain to continually reconcile and adjust visual input with physical movement.

Dr. Merzenich offers the following brain plasticity-based rules to engage your brain in your workout:

  1. As you move, focus on the feeling and flow of the movement. Work hard to progressively improve that flow and the achievement of your imagined movement targets.
  2. Move your whole body. You have a flexible core and spine. Use them.
  3. Avoid stereotypic movements. Vary movement, speed, and intensity, and include postural variations and weights. Present your brain and body different challenges.
  4. Monitor the quality and precision of your movement. In your mind, acknowledge and reward yourself for every achievement. Always aim for improvement.
  5. Set the mastery of all movements at a wide range of possible speeds as a goal. Go at a fast pace, sometimes, and controlled, perfected, slower movements at others.

You Can Get In Better Shape Just By Working Your Brain

Your mental and physical systems are intricately connected and heavily influence each other, which can work to your advantage.

In one study, three groups of college athletes were enlisted to determine if mental training alone could increase physical strength. The first group was asked to visualize practicing hip flexions, a weight-machine exercise in which the leg is flexed sideways and lifted with resistance, for two weeks, five times a week.

The second group physically did the hip flexions, while a third group did nothing. The group that actually exercised saw strength gains of 28 percent, and the group that just trained mentally saw gains of almost as much at 24 percent! As you would expect, the control group didn’t register any significant gains.

Getting your brain involved in your workout may also actually get you more results faster. Research has shown that when you focus your mind on a specific muscle during a workout, you work that muscle 22 percent harder.

In fact, just believing that your daily activities are exercise has been shown to improve physical fitness. In one study, Harvard researchers informed one group of hotel housekeepers that their daily work qualified as physical exercise. A control group didn’t get this information. After four weeks, people who believed their work was exercise had a decrease in weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index, even though their behaviors hadn’t changed at all.

The Real Reason To Exercise Your Brain And Body

There is solid evidence that physical exercise alone protects your brain and ample proof that mental activity alone does the same. Engaging your brain during physical activity gives you the benefits of both. As long as you’re working, why not get the most brain benefit out of your workout?

The article, “Which is better for keeping your mind fit: physical or mental activity?”, states:

Take advantage of the brain protection that both physical and mental activities provide. On the physical side, start or keep moving. A good goal is 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week, but any activity is better than none. On the mental side, Dr. McGinnis suggests doing something you already enjoy.”

Let’s face it. As you age and get beyond the youthful ego wanting to look good, exercise becomes about quality of life: being able to keep working, manage your finances, stay socially active, remain independent, maintain mobility, and get up off of the toilet when you’re 75. Please take a moment to watch this video on the subject. Best I’ve ever seen.


The bottom line is: you can harness the power of your thoughts to create real physical changes in your body. On the flip side, physical activity leads to real positive changes in your brain. A lifestyle that incorporates both is going to give you the most benefit now and in the years to come.

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  1. None of this surprises me Debbie. The mind/body connection is simply amazing. Believe it and you’ll see it seem to work for staying fit too. Love it.

    • I know it to be very true from my own experience. I wish more people realized and utilized this powerful tool to better our health!

  2. Another fascinating article Debbie – I was quote the study about the exercise being done in your mind to someone the other day and couldn’t provide the reference, so this is very helpful! I think I better get down to salsa quick though..!

    • Thanks, Ellen. The salsa would be a fun way to exercise your body and brain! Might as well enjoy yourself – added brain benefits! I love my yoga.

  3. Lynn Louise Wonders Reply

    I love seeing the importance of going barefoot and feeling the earth beneath my feet…. To know this is also good for my brain is encouraging. Walks on the beach and yoga in bare feet are favorite activities. Mindless tread mill running – not so much! Good to know what I’m feeling drawn to do is better for my body AND brain!

    • Your instincts are right on target, Lynn! I love going barefoot in the summer. I was also happy to find out it’s good for my brain. I didn’t think of the added benefit of doing yoga barefoot. But, yes, I do use the information coming from my feet to help a lot.

  4. Jessica Sweet Reply

    Thanks Debbie! Back when I could, I used to love running on the treadmill – believe it or not! Now that my body has decided that’s not good for me, I’m drawn to other things. It’s fascinating though that just thinking about exercise can have real benefits! That’s the power of our minds in action for sure!

    • Jessica, it is amazing how much wisdom and power our bodies have. I too used to run, but after tearing a maniscus and having surgery, I now prefer gentler exercises, like yoga, walking, and rebounding.

  5. Ross Stensrud Reply

    Debbie This is a great read. Thank you for posting it. I wanted to share some more research with you on this topic. This study from the link here showed older adults who engaged their brain while exercising saw dramatic improvements in cognitive health over those who did traditional cardio workouts. The incredible part is that this was measured was through increased BDNF levels in the blood. BDNF is the chemical linked to neuroplasticity. Mentally engaged exercisers were making more new brain connections. Exciting stuff! The researchers are continuing with a number of follow up projects since the original results were published.

    • Ross,

      Thanks for your comment and sharing the video. Wow! The results in the video are major! I kind of always knew this having recovered from a brain injury using directed neuroplasticity exercises, but after writing and researching the article, I have really been putting my mind to work too in my exercising and yoga. I do think it makes a difference physically and mentally. 🙂

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