Changing Your Thinking Will Change Your Weight — Part Two


In Changing Your Thinking Will Change Your Weight Part One we talked about how the words we use when thinking or talking about weight loss can be powerful agents of motivation. Simply substituting “healthy eating” for “diet” removes negative connotations and helps make us feel more in control of our eating behaviors.

This principle can be applied to developing many habits and attitudes we need to lose weight and keep it off.

Changing the way we think about healthy food is a good example.

I was talking to a woman recently about healthy eating and she mentioned that she had been eating a lot of salads lately. But she didn’t use the word “salad”. She said “rabbit food” and wrinkled her face in disgust.

That’s not the way to build motivation and seize control of eating habits. Clearly, she could find nothing rewarding about eating salads. Referring to salads as “rabbit food” implies it is animal food and unfit for human consumption. Not very encouraging.

Most days I eat sardines right out of the can, but I don’t especially care for sardines. They just aren’t very appetizing. Do I concentrate on all the negative aspects of eating sardines? No. I think about how important it is to include fish in my eating routine.

Fish is high in protein, and that means ounce for ounce it satisfies hunger better than just about anything else. I try to limit eating to mealtimes, so it’s normal for my body to expect food at certain times throughout the day.

After all, you are supposed to feel a little hunger when lunch or dinner rolls around. I look forward to feeling hunger before a mealtime because it is a sign I haven’t been snacking and undermining my weight loss goals. I also look forward to the sensation of feeling full after I eat my sardines.

A lot of this is just reminding ourselves of things we already know.

For example, I remind myself that fish is high in DHA and EPA, two Omega 3 fats proven to have profound effects on metabolizing cholesterol and increasing cognitive functions. For someone like me who has issues with triglycerides and makes a living with my brain these facts are highly motivating.

That little change in perspective – looking forward to the positive nutritional results of a food instead of the immediate sensory satisfaction – makes a huge change in my experience of eating. Instead of thinking only about the sensation of what is in my mouth, my focus changes to healthy eating and the benefits it has for my body and lifestyle.

I apply the same thinking to the sensation of hunger. I can gain weight very easily – it’s a sign of success in long-term weight loss – because my body has become so efficient at digesting what I eat. Notice that I changed “I gain weight very easily” into something positive by paring it with a sign of successful weight loss. Easy weight gain is a sign that I’ve successfully lost weight in the past.

That’s a good thing!

Also, instead of thinking of a hunger pang as a distressing sign that my body is in need of nutrition and is sending out a distress call for immediate feeding I take a different perspective. A hunger pang is a signal that my body is turning from metabolizing energy from sugars and proteins in my bloodstream to metabolizing fat reserves.

That’s a good thing!

It means I’m losing weight, which is exactly what I want to do. Making that simple change in perspective puts me in control of the experiences associated with eating. I feel good about that hunger pang.

I welcome it!

It means that I’m on my way to accomplishing my goal of maintaining my weight and living a healthy lifestyle.

None of this is “looking on the bright side” or searching for a ray of positivity in the gloom. It’s all about applying facts to the experience of weight loss and fighting our human compulsion to make things harder than they really are.

Try it. It will take practice to make it a habit, but that’s true of any skill worth learning.


If you liked this article, you may find these interesting also:


Can’t Lose Weight? Create a Diet That Works!

How to Ensure a 95% Diet Failure Rate

Why Willpower Is Powerless When It Comes to Dieting

Five ways to use this powerful psychological trick to lose weight

Stop avoiding exercising your mind and body

Forget Health Insurance; Live Healthy and Manage Your Own Healthcare Instead

How I Lost Forty Pounds and Kept It Off and Why You Probably Can’t

How Sleep, Intestines and Microbes Keep Us Fat

Why Physical Exercise Makes You Smarter and Protects Your Brain

Five Things I Learned From the Secret Life of Fat

How We Ensure a 95% Diet Failure Rate


Roy Baumeister is a social psychologist at Florida State University who is famous for making significant discoveries about self-control and will power. In his very interesting book, Willpower he leads us through all the hidden challenges of weight loss.

Baumeister tells us that bookies in England, (where this kind of betting is legal), routinely give odds against anyone betting on weight loss, though people placing bets have control over just about everything. They define exactly what weight loss means, to the pound, they establish the period and they identify the conditions under which they will attempt to lose.

Not only do they have those technical issues under their control, they are also highly confident that they will lose weight, otherwise they would never make the bet.

Yet in spite of all that control and confidence, the house wins about 80% of the time. Keep in mind that this does not include regaining weight months or years later. No, the bet is only about losing weight in the immediate future.

Almost everyone fails.

How can this be? How can millions of people worldwide fail to lose weight? You would think that at least a few of them would accidentally do all the right things and lose a few pounds.

But no.

In a recent meta-study, 78 academic studies of weight loss attempts were reviewed and their results were recalculated and aggregated. (Haynes, Kersbergen, Sutin, Daly, and Robinson 2018). In other words, the authors statistically re-examined the results of 78 academic studies on weight loss and combined them into one huge academic paper.

Some of the insights they gained were quite surprising.

“We examined peer-reviewed literature published between 1991 and 2017 and found strong evidence to suggest perceived overweight was associated with a higher likelihood of trying to lose weight and moderate evidence to suggest perceived overweight was associated with greater use of both healthy and unhealthy weight control strategies. However, those weight loss attempts and strategies did not appear to be translated into healthy weight-related behaviours” (p.357).

“…while individuals who perceived their weight status as overweight were more likely to report trying to consume a healthy diet and increasing physical activity to lose weight, there was no evidence to suggest that these individuals were actually more likely to enact these behaviours than those who did not identify as overweight. …there was evidence of no relationship between perceived overweight and healthy eating habits” (p.359).

“…there was strong longitudinal evidence to suggest that perceived overweight predicts weight gain over time, and this was the case across the majority of participant subgroups” (p.359).

In other words, this study found that people who know they are overweight might try reasonable methods to lose weight — exercise and healthy eating — but were not quite able to accomplish serious weight loss. In fact, the strongest predictor of weight gain is the knowledge you are overweight!

That does not give us very much insight into what specifically causes weight loss efforts to fail, but there is one tantalizing hint that might give us something to address:

“Attempts to lose weight by individuals who perceive themselves as overweight may not necessarily translate into the adoption or appropriate implementation of effective weight control strategies. Perceived overweight was associated with unhealthy weight control strategies and disordered eating” (p.359).

“Perceived overweight was associated with unhealthy weight control strategies and disordered eating”. It’s not the people do not try to lose weight, the problem seems to be they try in the wrong ways. This study seems to find that unhealthy weight control strategies and “disordered eating” are what keep us from losing weight.

“Unhealthy weight control strategies” and “disordered eating” are eating behaviors that are not quite serious enough to be mental health issues like anorexia nervosa or chronic bulimia. Instead, these are things like obsessive calorie counting, binging, late night eating, abusing laxatives, excessive fasting or chronic restrained eating.

These behaviors are not in themselves things that make us gain weight, but they lead to a breakdown of a healthy eating regimen. These are the ways we undermine ourselves, but taken individually and as one time or occasional behaviors they are harmless. However, when we unconsciously integrate them into our lifestyle they undermine our commitment to healthy weight loss.

Cognition, Behaviors and Weight Loss

The way we think about food and eating has a powerful effect on how we use food to either keep us healthy or make us sick. Our thoughts can undermine our goals or improve the chances of achieving them. Our thoughts have this incredible power because they determine our behaviors — the things we physically do.

Psychologists have a name for this interaction of thoughts and behaviors — Cognitive-Behavioral. Cognitive or cognition refers to internal mental mechanisms like thoughts, memories and intelligence. The inner voice you her when reading or talking to yourself is cognition, so is the process of recalling a memory or making a new one.

Behavior is anything you physically do that you or others can observe and count or measure. If someone can count the times they see, hear or feel you doing something, it’s a behavior. People often confuse emotions with behavior, but emotions are an internal sensation. We can’t see emotions like anger or happiness, only the external physical manifestations, like a frown, furrowed brow, or a smile or laughter. We really do not know what other people are thinking.

We don’t even know what we are thinking much of the time. That is one of the biggest challenges in healthy eating and weight loss. Things we are not even aware of can influence our thoughts, and in turn, our thoughts influence our eating and health behaviors.

Even the most unremarkable things can influence our view of idea of how the world works.

Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who won the Noble prize in Economics for his work in Behavioral Economics — the melding of economics and psychology to investigate how people make decisions about numbers and money. Thinking, fast and slow is his landmark book that covers all his very interesting experiments and breakthroughs. This is a must have book for everyone interested in behavioral economics.

In a famous experiment at the University of Oregon, Kahneman and his academic partner Amos Tversky, built a Wheel of Fortune, similar to the one on the televise game show. Unlike the television wheel, the Kahneman/Tversky wheel would stop only on 10 or 65. After spinning the wheel in front of a group of students Kahneman would ask two questions that students were unlikely to know and would there for be forced to guess.

“Is the percentage of African nations among UN members larger or smaller than the number you just wrote?” and,

“What is our best guess of the percentage of African nations in the UN?”

Amazingly, students exposed to 10 averages 25% for the two questions, and those exposed to the 65 guessed that 45% of countries in the UN were African. Simply being exposed to larger or small numbers influenced students estimates of the national membership of the UN.

Kahneman and Tversky call this the “anchoring effect”. When we are exposed to a high number, we tend to make higher estimates of anything asked of us afterwards. Students exposed to a higher number in the Wheel of Fortune experiment tended to guess that African nations were a larger part of the UN than students exposed to the lower number.

Even though the number was nothing more than a symbol on a wheel and did not represent quantity or anything else.

In a similar experiment, real estate agents were asked to access the value of a house that was on the market. They visited the house and were given a booklet with pertinent facts. However half the agents had a booklet listing an asking price far above the actual price, while the other half had a booklet with the asking price substantially lower than the real asking price.

Sure enough, the agents exposed to the higher false asking price suggested a higher asking price than those who were exposed to the lower false asking process. Given the results of the Wheel of Fortune experiment, that is no surprise.

In an interesting twist, all the agents were convinced the price they saw had no effect on their recommend price. After all, they assured the experimenters, they were professionals who did such recommendations for a living and were practiced enough that an unrealistically high or low would not influence them.

The experiment was repeated with a group of business students. The business students submitted recommendations that were within 8% of the real estate agents. The only difference was that the students admitted the fake asking prices influenced their price recommendations.

This gives you an idea of how suggestible we are. Think about that. The thing that makes us unique among all other animals on earth — our cognitive abilities — is at the mercy of any random number that happens along our path. Our guesses and assumptions about the world are really reflections of our most recent experiences.

The influence of external factors like exposure to numbers or inaccurate information is only one way our efforts at weight loss are undermined. We also have to think about internal errors in thinking– what psychologists call cognitive errors, like recalling information inaccurately or confusing a set of facts with the wrong issue. Even when we get those things right there are many other variables that sabotage our efforts to eat healthy and lose weight.

This might have something to do with why so many people cannot understand why their weight loss efforts come to naught.

We cannot ignore the powerful effect of our own behaviors on the way we think about weight loss.

Recently I was discussing weight loss with a young woman who admitted she was making no progress in her weight loss efforts. She was telling me about her diet and described increasing he proportion of vegetables in her diet. As she was telling about this, she wrinkled her face into an expression of disgust and described vegetables as “rabbit food”.

This was another example of the anchoring effect, except this time with facial expressions and words instead of numbers providing the anchor. This young woman had no idea she was undermining her diet efforts simply by her words and facial expression.

In a famous experiment that opened the door to the relationship between facial expressions and mood, experimenters simply asked subjects to hold a pencil in their mouths while they rated the humor of cartoons (Strack, Martin and Stepper 1988).

In one experimental condition participants held the pencil just with their lips, creating a frown, while in another condition participants held the pencil with their teeth, creating something approximating a smile. Astoundingly, the subjects with the forced smile rated the cartoons funnier than subjects in a control condition without the pencil. Subjects holding the pencil with their lips creating a forced frown rated cartoons less funny than a control group.

This experiment has been repeated many times in many different variations and the results are consistent. We influence our own judgements with behaviors like emotionally relevant facial expressions, speech patterns and body language.

This young woman was creating a barrier to her own efforts simply by her negative word and facial expressions about healthy eating. She will be far less likely to maintain a diet with a high proportion of vegetables when she turns eating vegetables into an unpleasant experience.

So how do we control things as superficial as facial expressions and our subconscious reaction to numbers?

Stay Tuned

I’ll offer some answers here at Medium, and at


Baumeister, R. F., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. New York: Penguin Press.

Haynes, A., Kersbergen, I., Sutin, A., Daly, M., & Robinson, E. (2018). A systematic review of the relationship between weight status perceptions and weight loss attempts, strategies, behaviours and outcomes. Obesity Reviews, 19(3), 347–363. doi: doi:10.1111/obr.12634

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow (1st ed.). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: a nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of personality and social psychology, 54(5), 768.

Why Will Power is Powerless for Dieting

No matter how dedicated people might be about losing weight, they rarely have a detailed plan in place for changing their eating behaviors. For the most part, they rely on will power. Unfortunately, people who rely on will power alone to lose weight will almost certainly fail, either in the short run, or in the long-term objective of staying slim.

Roy Baumeister is a social psychologist at Florida State University who is famous for making significant discoveries about self-control and will power. In his very interesting book, Willpower he leads us through all the hidden challenges of weight loss.

One especially disheartening hidden challenge of losing weight is that weight is resistant to self-control. Both Oprah Winfrey and Newt Gingrich are unquestionably gifted with more self-control than most people are, yet in spite of that advantage, both have experienced a lifetime of shame and humiliation over their failed weight loss efforts.

The iron will and self-control that brought them success deserted these accomplished celebrities when applied to weight, and left both the center of public humiliation.

In her magazine, “O,” Oprah describes sitting at the Emmy Awards ceremony praying to lose to her talk show rival Phil Donahue:

“I wouldn’t have to embarrass myself by rolling my fat butt out of my seat and walking down the aisle to the stage.”

In her highly recommended book, The Secret Life of Fat, Sylvia Tara reveals that Gingrich has similar sentiments. When interviewed by Barbara Walters in 1995 shortly after his ascension to the top post of Speaker of the House she asked about his biggest embarrassment:

“I’m most embarrassed about my weight,” he said. Not the trumped up ethics investigation, nothing to do with any of the three marriages, not the stunning Republican losses under his tenure as Speaker.

None of that.

His weight.

“I know it’s entirely a function of my personality that I swim, I eat the right things and then either I have the chance to drink some Guinness or eat some ice cream and I cave.”

It hasn’t always been this way. Only recently, has our weight skyrocketed and our efforts to manage it failed so miserably.

In the past obesity a sign of wealth and success. Tara tells us about 19th century men’s organizations that celebrated being overweight and accepted only “stout” men into their membership. Ladies Home Journal featured stories on how to gain weight and maintain “plumpness’ and in 1878 a book titled How to be Plump became popular.

During the Civil War soldiers averaged about 5’8” and weighed around 143 pounds.

By the early 1980’s men were about the same height as the Civil War, but their weight averaged forty pounds more at 183 pounds according to the Centers for Disease Control.

What happened? It seems that as soon as we have food in front of us we can’t help but gorge ourselves. As Gingrich says, just offering the chance to overeat assures us that we cave.

Baumeister tells us that bookies in England, (where this kind of betting is legal), routinely give odds against anyone betting on weight loss. That is stunning when you consider that the people making the bets – the dieters and their friends – have control over just about everything. They define exactly what weight loss means, to the pound, they establish the period, and they identify the conditions under which they will attempt to lose.

Yet the house wins about 80% of the time. Keep in mind that this does not include regaining weight months or years later. No, the bet is only about losing weight in the immediate future. Almost about everyone fails.

Just like Oprah.

Baumeister got curious about this and set out to explore the challenges of weight loss and how even people with a proven high level of self-control find it elusive.

First, he did a meta-study. In a meta-study, the investigator does not do any experiments of their own. Instead, they look at experiments others have done, combine all the data collected in previous experiments, and subject it to new statistical analyses.

Across dozens of studies, Baumeister found that people with proven reserves of superior self-control did slightly better than the average in controlling weight.

Slightly better.

Baumeister tested this finding by creating a 12-week weight loss program for undergrads at Florida State. He identified students with high self-control and followed them throughout the course. They did slightly better than the low self-control individuals, but not by much, and not for long. As the program wore on their self-control seemed to flag. In the end, there was little difference in weight loss between the high self-control group and the low self-control group.

How can self-control mean so little when it comes to weight loss? It seems to work in other areas of people’s lives. Losing weight is only a little more complicated than eating less and exercising more, so it seems impossible that self-control would be so meaningless.

What’s going on?

There are many reasons, but one probably familiar to all of us was given the title The What the Hell Effect.

Dieters lured to a taste testing experiment did not eat for a few hours before the experiment. Some were trying to lose weight while others were not. When they arrived at the lab, Baumeisters’ experimenters gave them either a small milkshake to ward off the hunger pangs or two huge high calorie milkshakes. When they finished their milkshakes they were led to a small room with cookies, chips and other goodies and asked to rate the snacks.

The thing that stunned the investigators was that the dieters who received the huge milkshakes ate the most snacks. Experimenters repeated the procedure several times because they were sure they must have made a mistake.

But no, dieters who fell off their diets the most spectacularly were the most likely to subsequently overeat.

The failed dieters seemed to think, “What the hell. In for a penny in for a pound. Makes no difference now, so go for the goodies.”

That is what happens, once the dieting subjects broke their diet they continued to break it with joyous abandon. Still it makes no sense. Any reasonably logical person understands that one five hundred calorie mistake is only compounded by throwing caution to the wind and gorging on whatever happens to be handy.

But that is what we do.

Psychologists call it rationalization. We use arguments that seem rational but really aren’t. It might seem rational that eating more makes no difference after a huge dieting failure, but that simply isn’t true. The more you eat, the more weight you gain, and it doesn’t matter if a subsequent 500 calories comes after a five hundred calorie mistake. It’s still an additional 500 calories.

That’s rationalizing.

Alternatively, as I like to call it, Rational Lies. Sounds rational, but it isn’t.

If Rational Lies were all there were to losing weight we’d all be skinny. It would just be a matter of catching those rational lies when they try to fool us and getting back on our dieting track.

But there is a lot more to it than that.

One of the things Baumeister found was that self-control takes energy. Real energy. The kind you get from food.

I can hear the groans of defeat. If self-control takes energy that comes from food, and we are on a diet limiting our food intake….how the heck is it possible to lose weight? As soon as our body has an energy deficit, our self-control goes out the window and we start eating.

Very true. Congratulations. You just articulated one of the hidden challenges of weight loss.

Baumeister tells us about an experiment in which chronic female dieters were asked to volunteer for a taste test. However, before the taste test they were asked to watch Terms of Endearment. Half the participants were instructed to quell any emotions and the other half were told to freely express their emotions. Following the movie, they were shown to a small room, given several bowls containing varying amounts of ice cream, a rating from, and left alone.

Of course, the experimenters were actually measuring whether subduing ones emotions had any effect on how much was subsequently eaten. Each bowl of ice cream was carefully weighed before and after giving it to the subject.

The dieters in the “suppress emotion” condition ate almost twice as much ice cream as the dieters in the control condition. They had used up their ability to suppress their overeating behaviors by suppressing their emotional behaviors while watching the movie.

Still doubtful? Read on.

In another experiment, female dieters were asked to watch a documentary in one of two conditions: either sitting right next to a bowl of M&Ms or sitting across the room form a bowl of M&Ms. Following the documentary the women were asked to solve some (unsolvable) algebra problems.

Can you guess which group gave up on the algebra problems first?

The ones with the M&Ms tempting them within arm’s reach gave up on the algebra problems first. The group exposed to a lower level of temptation spent far more time on the problems before giving up.

Again, it seems that the ability to resist temptation lessens with over use.

In a twist on this experiment, experimenters added non-dieting volunteers to the mix. It turns out that non-dieters had no effect from snacks, no matter where they were located or what kind of movie they watched. No matter what condition the experimenters placed the non-dieters their performance on subsequent tasks, (like solving unsolvable puzzles), was the same.

Earlier I mentioned that self-control takes energy, specifically, energy one gets from food. How do we know this?

Because when presented with a choice of healthy foods like vegetables and high energy food like candy and fruits dieters subjected to experiments similar to the ones I’ve described invariably went for the quick energy, high glucose snacks. Glucose comes from high calorie foods contacting a high proportion of natural or artificial sugars. Candy, for example.

Resisting temptation takes self-control, and following periods in which self-control is needed glucose becomes diminished. Consequently, dieters expending a lot of self-control to resist breaking their diets set themselves up to crave high calorie glucose rich foods.

Interestingly, we tend to reach for candy to restore our glucose levels, when healthy foods have the same effect. What is that?

Baumeister tells us that when we are in an energy-deprived state we feel our emotions more intensely than at other times. This is what a craving is. When we are emotionally vulnerable, our attraction to the visceral joy of candy is far more intense than other times. This is why we can breeze right through the grocery checkout counter surrounded by racks of candy and not be tempted as long as we are already satiated. On the other hand, when we have depleted our self-control and glucose, we might walk to the store for a sugary fix.

This is why the long-standing advice to avoid grocery shopping when hungry is so effective. This is is a form of structure – making changes in the environment or our own internal states in order to control our behavior.

Creating structure is the key to long-term weight loss, and it is what the next article will cover.

Stay tuned.


Sources mentioned in this article:

Baumeister, R. F., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. New York: Penguin Press.

Tara, S. (2017). The secret life of fat: The science behind the body’s least understood organ and what it means for you (First edition. ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.





Why Physical Exercise Makes You Smarter and Protects Your Brain

Something I find very interesting is the relationship between brain function and exercise. I don’t mean just the idea that we feel better when we exercise or that our brain works better when our blood is oxygenated. I’m interested in how lifestyle choices can make the brain work better. Things like daily habits that make us more intelligent and creative.

That’s right; our lifestyle has an effect on how smart we are.

Before going, any further let’s pause and review what happens in the brain when we learn something new. I think we all know that our brain consists of neurons – brain cells – with a nucleus in the center and dendrites, stretching like fingers to the dendrites of other neurons. Learning, thinking, remembering — everything we experience — results from one neuron making an electrochemical contact with another.

The more often one neuron stimulates another, the stronger that connections becomes. That is what learning is. Think about learning a physically complex movement, like driving a stick shift automobile.

At first, it seems like an impossible task – 3 pedals, 1 gearshift and a steering wheel, but only two feet and two hands. Give a little gas, let out the clutch slowly and the engine dies. Alternatively, let out the clutch too fast and the car jerks.

With practice, though, you get better and better until you don’t have to give conscious thought to shifting gears.

The more frequently one neuron stimulates another, the stronger that connection becomes. In terms of brain physiology, the more one practices the stronger and more complex the network of neurons controlling that behavior becomes. This is what learning really is – building strong associations between neurons, creating ever-bigger networks of associated neurons.

I learned some very interesting things about my brain when I broke my left foot. After eight weeks in a cast, my calf atrophied, but so had the network of neurons connecting my foot to my brain.

Long after I built back the muscles in my calf, I would occasionally reach for something to my left, and keep right on going because I had no balance on my left foot. That network of neurons in my brain communicating with the nerves and muscles in my foot had atrophied too.

They no longer had strong connections with one another and the complex interaction between sensing balance in my brain and actuating muscles in my foot was lost. My left foot no longer had the ability to balance like my uninjured foot did.

My physical therapist suggested that I go without shoes whenever possible, and I did. Within just a couple of months, I could balance on my left foot for as long as I wanted. The contact with different surfaces – grass, asphalt, gravel – stimulated the sensory neurons on my foot and helped rehabilitate the neural network in my brain.

However, what was actually going on in my brain to allow this to happen? This is where things get interesting.

Most people over thirty probably remember a high school teacher instructing them not to drink alcohol because it destroys neurons, and neurons are not replaceable – you are born with all you will ever have.

It turns out that isn’t true at all. In the 1990’s scientists began identifying classes of proteins in the brain. One was Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) first found in the hippocampus, the memory center of the brain. This discovery drew lot of scientific attention and it was quickly established that BDNF is essential to the development of neural networks – that is, brain structures supporting learning and memory.

The thing that is so astonishing about BDNF is that it actually works on the infrastructure of the brain – physical brain growth and expansion. Put some brain cells in a petri dish suspended in nutrients and not much happens. Add a few drops of BDNF and the neurons start growing dendrites and reaching for one another.

In his fascinating book Spark examining the relationship between exercise and the brain, John Ratey refers to BDNF as “Miracle-Gro for the brain”.

According to Ratey, BDNF sends ions to nerve endings, increasing the electrochemical bond, creating stronger and more robust neural networks. It activates brain receptors that make more BDNF, serotonin and other neuron-chemicals that aid the synapses and dendrites in communicating with one another. In short, BDNF is the driver of brain plasticity.

It gets even better.

Ratey tells us that throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s animal studies proved beyond doubt that exercise and volume of BDNF in the brain correlate with one another. Now, consider this – physical movements are usually associated with learning. We learn by interacting with our world, finding puzzling new things we have not seen before and exploring their properties.

Think of how infants constantly focus their attention on one thing after another. Infants are constantly touching, tasting and feeling the world around them. Learning about the world and physical activity are closely related. Even if we are just moving our eyes, we are physically active. A relationship between physical movement and brain activity supporting learning makes sense.

Finally, in 2007 German researchers found that, people learn vocabulary words 20% faster after exercise than before exercise, and that there is a direct correlation between the rate of learning and levels of BDNF.

However, what is it about exercise that has an effect on the brain? What is the mechanism by which muscle movement assists in memory?

It turns out that when we exercise our muscles produce hormones that have effects on how the brain learns and makes memoires.

Ratey tells us that when we exercise muscles produce a hormone called IGF-1. We have known for some time that IFG-1 assists in delivering glucose to muscles in need of energy, but only recently discovered its role in learning. During exercise, BDNF stimulates uptake of IGF-1 in the brain, activing neurons to produce serotonin and glutamate, two neurotransmitters essential for communication between neurons. At the same time, it increases release of BDNF, enhancing neuro plasticity and the formation of long-term memories.

Another hormone produced in the muscles, VEGF, is essential in producing new blood capillaries and has found some success in naturally building detours around clotted arteries. In the brain, VEGF seems to have an effect on the blood-brain barrier, allowing muscle related hormones to more easily enter the brain.

Finally, FGF-2 helps tissue grow and its role in repairing muscles damaged by exercise is well known. Now we know that FGF-2 is also very active in the brain, assisting with the formation of new brain tissue.

Ratey includes many practical examples of how exercise benefits our brains. He quotes one study in which two groups of over 50 year olds took a memory test following either exercise or watching TV. It is no surprise that the exercise group demonstrated much better recall.

The practical takeaway is that no matter what our age cognitive activity should be interspaced with exercise. Not only is exercise good for our bodies, it is good for our minds as well. The earlier we get in the habit of taking care of our brains when we are young the better it will serve us in old age.

All of this is just touching on the fascinating information Ratey presents in Spark. In it, he explores how exercise can affect depression, anxiety, stress, learning and aging. Using different muscles releases different hormones that affect our brain differently. For instance, animal studies indicate that complex motor skills, the kind developed with dance or balance exercises produced more BDNF than aerobic exercise like running or walking.

Take a walk, jog a little, read a book or learn a language. Your brain needs to serve you for a lifetime and you have to care for it every day.