xercise isn’t all about your body. In fact, building muscles and conditioning your heart and circulatory system are mere side effects of working out. Exercise is really about your brain. But not just any exercise. It’s one that challenges, frustrates, and rewards to an extent that signals neuronal changes in the brain. While resistance training is known to not just train your muscles but also the muscle-nerve connection, there is so much more to it. With 80-100 billion nerve cells, known as neurons, your brain is capable of some astonishing feats. If you understand how to make your brain change for the better, you know the ultimate longevity secret to keep your mind bright and clear and your body capable of performing at the age of 100.
I hate to tell you but based on everything Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford University Andrew D. Huberman said and published this year, the answer is no. As beneficial as exercise is, it does not enhance plasticity of the brain unless you do certain things while exercising. While exercise can enhance neurogenesis, a process by which nervous system cells are produced, and certainly enhance IGF-1 growth factor and blood flow delivery in the brain parts where neural stem cells reside, exercise does not change your brain.
“Blood flow to the brain is one of the primary ways to enhance the health of the brain, whether it increases neurogenesis in humans or not. But if we want to change our brain for the better, we need to go beyond neurogenesis. And that’s neuroplasticity” - says Dr. Huberman in his currently highly ranked podcast Huberman Lab.
Neuroplasticity refers to your brain's ability to restructure or rewire itself when it recognizes the need for adaptation. In other words: your brain can change in response to your behaviour, which can help you more thoughtfully engage in activities that can contribute to your wellbeing – no matter your age. So, not only the brain controls behaviour (the motor neurones contract muscles upon the command that stem in the circuits of the brainstem), but our behaviour can change the brain.
Neuroplastic change occurs at the chemical, structural and functional levels of the brain, and the brain continues to change throughout your lifetime precisely because the connections between neurones are plastic. The more you engage and challenge your mind and body, the longer it functions at a high level. Imagine skiing or surfing with your grand grand children at the age of 103!
However, after the age of 25, you need to put in some work to access neuroplasticity, and here’s how.
Your brain wants to be surprised so that it releases a neurochemical cocktail which indicates it needs to get plastic, it needs to change. These neurochemicals are epinephrine (adrenaline), acetylcholine and dopamine. Without this neurochemical mix release, there is no neuroplasticity. The question is, what releases this specific neurochemical cocktail?
Think of skiing or surfing for the first time. If you already know how to, you won’t access neuroplasticity but if that’s new to your body and brain, then your neurons will fire like the fireworks over the Sydney opera. Let’s explore the specifics of these situations a little deeper so that you know exactly what to do to access neuroplasticity.
Think of a situation of extreme laser focus and high alertness but in a calm state (solving a math problem in an exam or surfing a wave for the first time ), not stressed out (when a shark chases you with an open mouth). When you're extremely focused and alert, epinephrine and acetylcholine are released which sharpens your focus, eliminates distraction or “filters” what’s unnecessary and amplifies the sensory input (“depth of focus”), making your experience more salient, more apparent. Release of these neurochemicals opens an opportunity for neuroplasticity.
While creating mismatches and making errors is unpopular and unappreciated in our society, your brain loves that because it recognizes the need to progress, not stagnate. If you’ve just picked up skiing, chances that you get it right from the first time are low, most probably you might even get frustrated. Great! Your brain does not classify this as something negative but rather as a signal to adapt and align the sensory world with the motor world. When you don’t give up and succeed, you experience a dopamine release, a third neurochemical key to neuroplasticity.
Have you ever spent hours trying to learn to play a piano, score a point in basketball or write a piece of code just to get frustrated? In fact, these “errors” when we do not achieve progress signal to the nervous system, “buddy, something's not working.” But the brain doesn't understand the words “something isn't working”. The brain doesn’t even understand that frustration is an emotional state. But it understands the neurochemicals epinephrine and acetylcholine are released, when we start to approximate the correct or desired behaviour, dopamine release follows. So when we don’t achieve something, the nervous system freaks out and launches a change in the circuitry. And so errors are the basis for neural plasticity and for learning.
Why would the brain ever change unless there's something to be afraid of, something awful? There must be an error in our performance. So it turns out that the feedback of these errors is the change in response and our nervous system functioning!
The trio biochemical release is the signal for your brain to focus on the error margin and the distance between what it is that you're doing (a movement) and what it is that you would like to do (perform better than the last time), and then the nervous system starts to make changes almost immediately in order to get the behaviour right or even a little bit better, which causes a cascade of dopamine release, which in turn accelerates the plastic changes in the brain.
If you leverage that frustration toward drilling deeper into the endeavour, you are setting yourself up for a terrific set of plasticity mechanisms to engage. Dopamine release accelerates neuroplasticity and ensures continued pursuit. But if you take that frustration and walk away from the endeavour, you're essentially setting up plasticity to rewire you according to what happens afterwards, which is generally feeling pretty miserable.
So, tell yourself you’re learning and getting better at each attempt (even if your experience or performance data shows something else!) and let your brain make the changes necessary, including the motor, the muscular changes. Here, it’s key to stick to tiny incremental improvements - small but regular steps forward. Especially if you’re older than 25 and your plasticity takes much more time and effort.
The rate and the magnitude of plasticity depends on how important something is to us. As previously mentioned, in order to create plasticity, you need to use your senses and create mismatches or errors in how you perform things, and these can come from within as a strong desire to change. An urge to eat in order to survive, make income, get stronger or learn French to save your relationship - all are strong signals for the brain that there is a mismatch and it needs to act and adapt.
So is the 6 Minute Workout: the intensity of the workout puts your brain in a state of alert and urgency to survive the challenge. Imagine you get lost in a forest and need to go hunting. Your focus would be sharp, you’d be filtering carefully for sounds and… sprinting towards the rabbit faster than you thought you could. OK, maybe you wouldn’t be sprinting.
This is also why just exercising passively or counting your reps is not sufficient for your nervous system to change. It’s also a reason why you haven’t learned French at school - there was no burning urge.
To better understand what these sensory mismatches work, you need to understand something as fascinating as representational plasticity. Representational plasticity is your internal representation of the outside world, so you have a map of auditory space, a map of visual space, and a map of motor space and motor commands (muscle contractions). You've got all these representations inside just like birds do to dive in the sky and cross continents without any GPS or like airplanes manoeuvring in the sky using different sensors.
So it’s really about creating sensory mismatches and getting comfortable with the mentally and physically uncomfortable - the error. The way to create plasticity is to send signals to the brain that something is wrong, something is different and something isn't being achieved, and so there is the burning need to change, to get better. In other words, you need to challenge your brain by making it align the layers of auditory and visual spaces and motor reactions (muscle contractions) which it hasn’t known before. And you need to keep on surprising your brain. Once you’ve learnt to surf and won’t learn new tricks, there will be no plasticity. The good thing about the 6 Minute Workout is that you can always challenge yourself until you reach your genetic optimum.
Thanks to the mechanisms in your eyes and ears and your body’s relation to gravity, your brain knows what shifts or weight transfers it needs to launch or how to recalibrate your motor movements when your body’s relationship to gravity changes and it needs to get into balance. That’s why you don’t just fall when someone pushes you, don’t miss to grab the phone when it rings or hit the ball parallel to your body without really looking at it. Brain is like a pilot in the cockpit that knows to manoeuvre and land the airplane smoothly on its wheels. In fact, when it’s misbalanced, the cerebellum signals to the deeper parts of the brain to release epinephrine, acetylcholine and dopamine. The magical neurochemicals.
The more novel the motor activity and the relationship to gravity is, the more it will open up the opportunity for neuroplasticity. For some it might mean doing yoga or gymnastics, for others taking sharp turns when skiing, for female tango dancers dancing backwards on high heels, for you maybe doing handstands? But again, if you’re already good at handstands, then doing even a 30 minute handstand won’t create any neuroplasticity. The more novel and atypical the relationship to gravity, the more opportunity for neuroplasticity. A sense of instability and the need to stabilize your body is also an indication for the brain to release the neurochemical cocktail.
If you’re just on a stationary bike, no matter how exciting the video is in front of you and how focused you are, there is no sensory mismatch to the gravitational pole, nor is there the urgency.
Imagine this: your brain and spine are the pilots in a cockpit, and the rest of your body is the airplane. What do pilots do? Risk management by continually scanning the horizon and the computer screens and adjusting the course accordingly. So does your nervous system in the brain and the spinal cord.
During the 6 Minute Workout, we use different sensory mismatches. Vision being key, as vision is the primary sense humans use to evaluate and respond to threats. With workout data clearly displayed in front of you as you totally calm yet deeply focused, resist (push or pull) at your maximum strength, the neurones in your brain start firing. They have to, because it’s a survival, almost like a fight or flight situation. The visual input to your eyes activates the nervous system: “I had a better performance in the first repetition last time” acts as a stimulus to your nervous system. Your brain processes it and acts upon it. You might feel at this moment that this is not everything that you can give (mismatch), so your brain tells you via the nervous system to give a little more. In this case, more motor units - nerves and muscle fibers - are engaged. This leads to more power generated, instantly visible on the screen. In other words, we use our eyes to gather feedback on our performance, which leads to an increase in power thanks to the communication between the nervous system, the peripheral system, and the different organs. If you succeed and your performance is better, you enjoy the dopamine release. By repeating the exercise, connectivity between the nervous system and the muscle tissue evolves stronger, in particular in the first weeks and months, as your body still perceives the workout as a novelty. This leads to higher stimulation of the muscles and therefore, to the greater adaptation of your motoric units. And vice versa: the brain is stimulated in the right way to start change for the better.
While no research has been conducted to evaluate the effects of the 6 Minute Workout on your brain, it is scientifically proven that the more the brain is “exercised” by extreme focus and repetitive but unknown, challenging activities when errors occur or when desired performance is not achieved, the stronger and more connected it becomes. The more neuroplastic changes take place. It is known that these new neural connections occur across the brain’s grey and white matter. Grey matter is neural tissue that includes regions of the brain involved in muscle control, sensory perception (e.g., seeing, hearing), memory, emotions, speech, decision-making, and self-control. White matter connects grey matter regions together. By increasing the brain's volume of gray matter (actual neurones) and white matter (connections between neurones), you’re making yourself smarter, happier, and more resilient.
Further research and resources
# The surprising link between strength training and cognition in literature
In a recent study in the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers demonstrated that weight training can overcome cognitive impairment and even jumpstart the creation of new neurons. Just three resistance-training workouts a week were enough to improve cognition and boost memory performance in “gym rats.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that humans who weight-train will get the same brain gains. Nevertheless, the researchers suspect that strengthening exercises may very well counteract age-related cognitive impairment and memory loss in humans.
Another research published in JNeurosci in 2020 reveals that the first few weeks of weightlifting strengthens the nervous system, not the muscles. While you may get frustrated when you don’t see results from weightlifting right away, remember your efforts serve first the reticulospinal tract which gets stronger, followed by increased strength in muscles.
Resistance training can improve memory and reasoning in people with mild cognitive impairment
A team of Australian researchers has been studying whether resistance training can improve memory and reasoning in people with mild cognitive impairment, which is often a precursor to dementia. The team recruited 68 women and 32 men ages 55 through 86, all of whom had mild cognitive impairment, and randomly assigned them to two groups. One group did weight training twice a week for six months, lifting 80% of the maximum amount they could. The other did stretching exercises.
All participants were given cognitive tests at the beginning and end of the study and 12 months after they finished the study. The group that did the weight training scored significantly higher at the end of the study than at the beginning and retained that gain at 12 months. The gain in test scores was also greatest for those who had the greatest gains in strength. The scores of the group who performed stretching exercises declined somewhat. The results were published online Oct. 24, 2016, by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
Dr. Andrew D. Huberman, “ How to Focus to Change Your Brain | Episode 6, and How to Learn Faster by Using Failures, Movement & Balance | Episode 7, Huberman Lab Podcast, 2021, https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/huberman-lab/id1545953110
Dr. Andrew D. Huberman, “Human Responses to Visually Evoked Threat”, Current biology, 2020, https://profiles.stanford.edu/andrew-huberman?tab=publications
Harvard Women's Health Watch, “Weight training may boost brain power”, Harvard Health Publishing, 2017, https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/weight-training-may-boost-brain-power
Megan Call, “Neuroplasticity: How to Use Your Brain’s Malleability to Improve Your Well-being”, Accelerate University of Utah Health, 2019 http://accelerate.uofuhealth.utah.edu/explore/neuroplasticity-how-to-use-your-brain-s-malleability-to-improve-your-well-being
John Murphy, “Research shows surprising link between weightlifting and cognition”, MDLinx Preventive Medicine, 2019, https://www.mdlinx.com/article/research-shows-surprising-link-between-weightlifting-and-cognition/lfc-4190
Michael Dregni, “This Is Your Brain on Exercise”, Experience Life, 2018, https://experiencelife.com/article/this-is-your-brain-on-exercise/,
Jesper Lundbye Jensen 1, Peter C D Marstrand, Jens B Nielsen, “Motor skill training and strength training are associated with different plastic changes in the central nervous system”, 2004 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15890749/
Elizabeth A. Weaver, Hilary H. Doyle, “How Does the Brain Work?”, Dana Foundation, 2019, https://www.dana.org/article/how-does-the-brain-work/
Society for Neuroscience, “The First Few Weeks of Weightlifting Strengthens the Nervous System, Not Muscles”, SciTechDaily, 2020, https://scitechdaily.com/the-first-few-weeks-of-weightlifting-strengthens-the-nervous-system-not-muscles