How to beat Hormonal Changes with Exercise

The Theory

Exercise is particularly important for women to tone down negative consequences of hormonal changes. Exercise balances the system. Boosted levels of serotonin in the body regulates mood and aggression, which can be affected by hormonal changes such as the pregnancy, PMS and the menopause.

Physical activity increases levels of tryptophan in the bloodstream and therefore the concentration of serotonin in the brain. It balances dopamine, norepinephrine and BDNF. And keeps glutamate and GABA (too high in PMS sufferers) balanced as well.

The Workout

  • You can exercise while pregnant, but keep it fairly light. 30 minutes at 65-75% of your maximum heart rate per day.
  • For PMS, try 1 hour of aerobic exercise 4 times a week before your period.
  • In general, women benefit from moderate intensity workouts, but go with how you feel.
  • Remember that we evolved for long distance walking, not for sitting around in front of computers! Exercise is nature’s way of regulating chemicals in the body.


Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

How to beat Addiction and Quit Smoking with Exercise

The Theory

Addictions are tough. Sex increases dopamine levels 50-100%; cocaine increases it 300-800%. The allure of drugs is vivid in comparison to natural highs. But we can do ourselves great harm with this dopamine abuse. Dopamine is key to wanting something, not necessarily liking it. You see this happen all the time. Addicts crave the hit and will do anything to fix it. But when it comes, they’re already looking forward to the next one.

Addiction isn’t just about dopamine though. Addiction is learnt as well. We develop bad habits, automatic responses and reflexes. These learnt habits stick with us for a long time and relapse is all too easy. Addictions are about being passive to our cravings, being weak in the face of temptation and easily succumbing to the lazy thought habits we have developed. Exercise is the opposite, however. Exercise is about action, strength of mind and clear thinking.

Exercise or Drugs?

There are two effective solutions to stress – exercise or drugs. Cigarettes and nicotine are a relaxant and a stimulant. But so too is exercise. Just 5 minutes intense exercise lowers stress and builds dopamine. You can replace cigarettes with exercise. One real side-effect of quitting cigarettes is that your focus will be impaired through withdrawal of the nicotine. Exercise increases your ability to focus, so combining quitting smoking with a new exercise regime will actually help you quit.

Exercise also counteracts the mind-dulling effects of drugs like morphine and prevents withdrawal symptoms. Marijuana and chocolate activate endocannabinoids, causing the mild euphoria we experience when using these drugs. But so too does exercise. During exercise anandamide is used to block pain, causing euphoria at high intensities – something called the ‘runner’s high’.

The Workout

  • If you do 50 minutes exercise at 70-80% of your maximum heart rate your level of anandamide doubles, meaning you’ll replace cravings for your addictions with the ‘runner’s high’.
  • Take up thrill-seeking. This will get your dopamine levels up and you’ll find you crave less from your addictions. Also the more thrills you get from exercise, the more you’ll pursue it.
  • Increase your self-control with a regimen of exercise. The discipline and healthy feel of exercise means you’ll also smoke less, drink less caffeine and alcohol, eat less junk food, do less impulse spending and procrastinate less.
  • As a bare minimum try to workout 30 minutes, 5 days a week. In an ideal world, workout everyday.
  • Don’t just pound the roads around your house. Vary your exercise.
  • Try something that demands your full attention, like almost any competitive sport or yoga.
  • Even 10 minutes of high intensity exercise will reduce cravings.
  • Skipping rope jumping is good for when you need a quick fix to knock craving on the head: 10 minutes feels like 30 minutes biking.


Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

How to beat Depression with Exercise

The Theory

Exercise counters depression at almost every level. With regular exercise we become less anxious, less neurotic, less angry, less stressed, less cynical, less distrustful, more sociable, and more confident. How?

  • Exercise boosts norepinephrine, which boosts our feelings of self-esteem.
  • Exercise boosts dopamine, which boosts our motivation, attention, focus and satisfaction.
  • Exercise boosts serotonin, which enhances our mood and boosts our impulse control. It boosts our feelings of self-esteem and increases our capacity for learning.
  • Exercise boosts BDNF, which protects neurons against cortisol, the chemical released when we are under stress.

Exercise has been shown to work as well as the drug Zoloft against depression. The improvement isn’t as dramatic as the drug, but exercise performs better over the long-term, over about 6 months.

When we’re depressed, the brain stops adapting, it shuts down learning capacity at the cellular level. This means that we find it incredibly hard to work our way out of the hole. Depression is a form of hibernation. Instead of hibernating when food supplies are low, depression pushes us into hibernating when our emotions are low.

The Workout

  • Just 10 minutes exercise can lift your mood, but only briefly.
  • For best results, workout for 3-5 sessions per week.
  • Work at a high-intensity, 60-90% of your maximum heart rate.
  • As a rough guide, try to burn at least your Body Weight in lbs x 8 Calories per week. You can test yourself on gym equipment to get an idea of the values or use the calculator on this website: http://www.prohealth.com/weightloss/tools/exercise/calculator1_2.cfm.
  • Try to exercise with others too, then you’ll get the benefits of socialising as well. It will also give you the motivation to keep working.
  • Stick at it. Remember that exercise works best in the long-term, at least six months.

Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

How to Grow Your Brain with Exercise

The Theory

The brain is plastic; it isn’t fixed rigid from the day you were born to the day you will die. Brain cells can grow or die, they can strengthen or weaken throughout your life. You’ve probably heard the saying ‘when neurons fire together, they wire together.’ This is a fancy way of saying that, if you do something over and over again, you’ll get better and better at it and, eventually, you’ll be able to do that something without even thinking about it. Remember when you learnt to ride your bike? It was a nightmare at first, then you had stabilisers, then you were as free as a bird, flying down the road. That was the result of your brain’s neurons firing together over and over again and eventually wiring together so tightly that you didn’t have to think about pedalling or steering or braking any more.

Only mobile creatures need brains. Brains are very expensive things to run, they cost us a lot in terms of energy. If we didn’t really need a brain, we wouldn’t have one. There’s a particular mollusc that is born with a brain so that it can move across the rocks away from its birthplace. When it has found a new home, it doesn’t need the brain anymore so it eats it. Yum. You could say that thinking is the internalisation of movement, therefore it is only to be expected that exercise should have a profound effect on the brain.

And indeed it does. Exercise elevates the following chemicals in your brain:

  • Serotonin, which controls your mood.
  • Dopamine, which is your brain’s ‘reward centre’, linked with movement and learning.
  • Norepinephrine, which controls your attention and motivation.
  • BDNF, dubbed ‘MiracleGro for the brain’. This creates new branches of synapses. In other words: it grows brain cells.

And the more exercise you do, the more it spikes growth.

The Workout

The brain can’t learn while exercising, but blood goes to the prefrontal cortex immediately after exercise, making it ripe for learning something new.

  • Both aerobic (e.g. running, cycling) and complex activities (e.g. playing the piano, martial arts) are important.
  • Aerobic exercise elevates executive function neurotransmitters. This will create new blood vessels and new cells.
  • Complex activities increase BDNF, which strengthens and expands synapse networks. 
  • Tennis is a good example of an activity that combines both aerobic and complex activity. Other examples are yoga, pilates and dancing. Dancing to an irregular rhythm, like the tango, is particularly good for improving your brain’s plasticity.
  • Try to hit a least 35 minutes at 60-70% intensity (for women) or at your maximum heart rate (for men).


Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

How to beat Anxiety and Fear with Exercise

The Theory

If you think about what happens when you become anxious, it is very similar to your response to hard exercise: your heart rate increases and you get out of breath. That’s stress. Because of this, exercise can become a safe place to have a high heart rate and fast breathing. You can learn that a high heart rate and fast breathing does not mean that you are having an anxiety attack. Over time you become more comfortable with arousal and your brain gets reprogrammed to deal with stressful situations without feeling anxious.

The science of it is that exercise increases levels of something called FFA in the bloodstream. As a result, this lowers the ratio of tryptophan in the bloodstream. To bring the ratio back to normal, the body increases production of tryptophan, which in turn builds serotonin, which is the chemical that makes us feel good.

Fear is the memory of anxiety

Fear is the feeling we get when we are presented with a situation that we have faced before and which made us feel anxious: it is the memory of some past anxiety. There is some truth in the saying that ignorance is bliss. Panic is the state we get into when we are paralysed by our anxiety.

Drown out the fear

You can’t erase fear completely, the synaptic pathways in your brain cannot be erased. However, you can ‘drown out’ the fear by creating new positive synaptic pathways that strengthen and become the brain’s first response to the stressful situation. Simply doing something in response to your anxiety, rather than being passive, is beneficial. This is called ‘Active Coping’.

There are a number of ways that exercise tackles anxiety:

  1. It is a distraction, literally, from the stress.
  2. It reduces muscle tension, just like beta-blockers, but unlike beta-blockers, you are totally self-reliant, which will also build your self-confidence.
  3. It builds brain resources (chemicals like serotonin, norepinephrine, GABA and BDNF), making your brain tougher.
  4. It teaches you a different outcome of a stressful situation: your heart rate is up, you’re expecting to panic – but all is good! It reroutes your negative circuits to positive ones.
  5. It improves your resilience to stressful situations. You are in control, not the anxiety.
  6. It is active, not passive, so sets you free. Locked down people get anxious and depressed.

The Workout

  • Rigorous exercise is the best way of hurting anxiety: 60-90% of your maximum heart rate.
  • It’s not just for those with anxiety disorders, exercise will help with everyday anxieties that we all face.
  • Try 3 x 90 minute workouts per week.


Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.