The Most Dangerous Mind Requires a Fit Body

An infrared body with a glowing brain over a black background

There's a reason the most effective humans you know in business and in life are also likely some of the fittest people you know. It's not a coincidence.

What does one have to do with the other?

Let’s start with the basics. When you work out, your body releases chemicals called endorphins. These primal chemicals are what give you that feeling of euphoria after a blood-burning workout. They’re also responsible for reducing stress and anxiety, which can cloud your thinking and fight against your ability to make decisions. By reducing stress and anxiety, you’re creating a clearer, more focused mind.

But that’s not all. Studies have shown that your hard work in the gym can actually increase the size of your brain! The same work that builds your hard-earned physique is stimulating brain gains! The hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory, is one area that benefits when you put forth some real physical effort. And when it comes to the brain, size matters! Researchers have found that people who exercise regularly have a larger hippocampus than those who don’t.

Movement also improves memorization! Our ancestors didn’t have the luxury of maps. If any of you have practiced land navigation, you know that remembering where you’ve been is a huge part of knowing where you’re going…and it’s even more important when you need to get back to where you were. Our brains and bodies developed to memorize on the move and they didn’t stop working like that in the 1990s when personal computers became popular. Trying to memorize fifty words of a new language? Go for a walk. Trying to pack in 100 definitions for an upcoming Anatomy and Physiology exam? Pedal on a stationary bike. You’ll memorize those terms faster and more completely than you would just sitting at a desk finding excuses to go to the bathroom for the fifth time in two hours. Movement is a powerful tool for learning.

And while everyone is talking about the latest and greatest nootropics (neurotrophic)—everything from caffeine and nicotine to Adderall—they often leave out one of the most powerful brain-boosting compounds out there—intense exercise, blood-burning workouts, aka simulated successful hunts, and EARNING their physical fitness. Studies show that exercise enhances Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). This primal compound boosted our ancestor’s cognition when fancy $4 energy drinks weren’t growing on their local convenience tree. It fueled the wit and intelligence they needed to adapt, survive, and thrive in a hostile world that didn’t come with a 37-step handbook. And it still works. For you. Right now.

Why does this work? The blood coursing through your veins when you’re pushing yourself on a workout is delivering the oxygen and nutrients your body needs to keep performing. And, as it turns out, your brain is inside your body! Who knew?!?! It’s not as if that rush of blood does a U-turn at your neck! Those oxygen molecules and essential nutrients are flowing to your brain and those all-important neurons the entire time. That extra blood flow also stimulates the release of growth factors, which help to create new connections between brain cells. These new connections can improve cognitive function, making it easier to learn, retain, and apply new information.

But not only are you fueling your brain, you’re also training your mind! Lifting heavy weights isn’t a sub-primal task. It requires focus and concentration. You have to be in the moment, fully engaged in the task at hand. This kind of mental engagement can help to sharpen your mind and improve your ability to concentrate. The ancient Greek poet and warrior Archilochus is said to have first furnished the quote that still inspires the training of our most elite warriors today—“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.” Some people have a greater ability to concentrate than others. But, just like all other skills, it can be trained. If you practice being fully engaged in the task at hand, your ability to focus and concentrate grows. Pushing yourself in the gym, on the trail, or in your room pushes out all the unnecessary shit that wants to cloud your head. It’s you and your body, you and the iron, you and the dirt and the sun (or rain). The mind that can be trained to focus on a task for 30 minutes covered in sweat and the pride of our ancestors can also hit the books, do the research, run the meetings, and make the presentation that untrained minds will find more difficult.

So the idea that strong muscles equal a small brain is sub-primally laughable. The warrior builds both body and mind. They both work together. They both suffer when the other is ignored. They both gain when the other is trained. A fit body expresses a dangerous mind. A fit body builds a dangerous mind.

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