We all know how exercise and fitness can impact and improve our physical health. But, what about what it can do for your mind? Your brain? Your experience of anxiety, depression, stress and more? Your relationships? Your ability to experience peace and ease?
Movement can be an astonishingly powerful prescription for the all-too-often heaviness and complexity of life. So, why is it so difficult sometimes to get up and move, even when we know what good it’ll do for us? Turns out, our bodies and brains do this fascinating dance that sometimes supports us, and other times shuts us down, even when we know, rationally, we’d feel better making different choices. It makes me wonder what if the solution to start moving more isn’t based on a doctor’s orders or creating a rigorous workout plan but, instead, listening to our bodies and responding accordingly with movement in a way that brings all systems online? That’s what we’re talking about today with my guest, Dr. Jennifer Heisz.
She’s an expert in brain health and the author of Move The Body, Heal The Mind: Overcome Anxiety, Depression, and Dementia and Improve Focus, Creativity, and Sleep. Dr. Hesiz is an Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Brain Health and Aging at McMaster University, where she directs the NeuroFit lab. Her award-winning research examines the intersections of physical and emotional health and how exercise helps ward off or treat depression, anxiety, stress, and other mental health conditions.
Her new book explores her own research and the latest findings on how fitness and exercise can combat mental health conditions such as anxiety, dementia, ADHD, and depression, while improving productivity, creativity, and sleep. Get ready to hear us dive deeper into the relationships between fitness and mental health, creativity, and sleep and explore different strategies and approaches that anyone — with all levels of ability or disability, motivated or unmotivated — can tap to incorporate movement into their lives in a way that feels good. So excited to share this conversation with you.
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- You’ll also love the conversations we had with Bessel van der Kolk, MD about the relationship between our minds and our bodies and how we need to harness both to unwind the mind, especially in the context of trauma.
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Dr. Jennifer Heisz: Preview Quote
Just sitting there and grinding it out is actually counter-productive. It would be much better for you to go out and have like a nice walk. And when we move and give space for the brain to bring up some creative ideas to the surface to bubble up to the mind, then we can surprise ourselves.
Jonathan Fields: Introduction
So we all know how Exercise and fitness can impact and improve our physical health. But what about what it can do for your mind, for your brain, for our experience of Anxiety or depression, or stress, and more for our relationships, our ability to experience peace and ease. And why do we resist it? So much movement can be this astonishingly powerful Prescription for the all too often heaviness and complexity of Life. Then why don’t we do more of it? What stops us from doing it? And how does it actually work beyond appearance and fitness and performance? What does it do for us on a broader level? What turns out our bodies and brains do this fascinating dance that sometimes supports us and other times shut us down even when we know rationally, we feel better making different choices. And it makes me wonder if the solution to start moving more isn’t based on doctor’s orders or some sort of cosmetic or performance aspiration or creating a rigorous workout plan. But instead, listening to our bodies and responding accordingly with movement in a way that brings all systems online that treats and helps and heals on a profoundly different level that radiates up to the brain. Changes the way that we perceive ourselves and the world around us. And just makes us feel better in every context, an element of Life.
And that’s what we’re talking about today with my guest Dr. Jennifer Hayes. So she’s an expert in Brain health and the author of Move The Body Heal The Mind. Dr. Hayes is an associate professor and Canada research chair in Brain health and aging at McMaster university where she directs the neuro fit lab. Her award winning research examines the intersections of physical and emotional health, and how Exercise helps ward off or even treat depression. Anxiety, stress, and other mental health conditions and her new book explores her own research and the latest findings on how fitness and Exercise can combat mental health conditions, such as Anxiety, dementia, ADHD, depression, and more, while improving productivity, creativity and sleep. So get ready to hear us dive deeper into the relationships between fitness, mental health, creativity and sleep, and explore different strategies and approaches that anyone with all levels of ability or disability motivation or lack of motivation, can tap to incorporate movement into their lives in a way that feels genuinely good. So excited to share this conversation with you. I’m Jonathan Fields and this is a Good Life Project.
Jonathan Fields I’m just excited to dive in because I’m in part a citizen, neuroscience nerd and citizen Exercise nerd and have had actually a fair amount of experience in the fitness industry in various ways, shapes or I’m in the distant past. You know, it seems like a lot of the work that you’re doing now in the context of the intersection between how we move our bodies and how it affects our brain. And our state of mind or psychology is born in no small way up, your own personal experience.
Dr. Jennifer Heisz Yeah, yeah. It’s been a very personal journey for sure. That started back when I was in my mid-twenties. I was doing my PhD in neuroscience, studying how the brain represents who we are and our memories. And it became very clear to me that something was not right with my own brain. I started experiencing some pretty severe Anxiety, some intrusive thinking that turned out to be OCD. And I went to the doctor, the school doctor. They handed me a Prescription and I was like really reluctant to be honest. So a friend recommended I try their rusty, old road bike and much to my amazement, these bike rides soothed my mind. They quieted that negative thinking. Those intrusive thoughts and it was so profound that not only did it shift my personal Life where I made Exercise a priority for my mental health, it became my medicine, but also in my professional Life. So instead of just studying the fundamentals of neuroscience, I shifted to study how Exercise really impacts the brain. And so I have this kind of insider’s scoop on what’s going on, you know, from my personal Life that helps inform the science. And I think that’s how we’ve been able to really make some really great breakthroughs.
Jonathan Fields I love that. Would you have considered yourself a largely sedentary person before that?
Dr. Jennifer Heisz Absolutely, yes I, I’ve never really been an athlete. When I was growing up, I was a little bit overweight and it, it sort of took me out of sport. You know, I wasn’t picked for sports teams. So I never found a sport that I liked. I was always like healthy health conscious. But in terms of activity level, when you’re, I mean, when you’re studying as a student, I mean, you’re sitting most of the time, right? And so that had been my Life. And so there was a huge shift. And when I made Exercise a priority, and it wasn’t for my physical health, it was one hundred percent for my mental health, I mean the physical health benefits are also there and you get them the same. But the purpose was to be well to be mentally. Well, and that just, that was the switch that changed it for me. And my relationship with Exercise was never the same.
Jonathan Fields Yeah, I can imagine especially because that, you know, this all happens while you’re doing your grad work and neuroscience. So it’s like all these. You had these different data points, these different inputs and like, Oh wait a minute. This is coming together in a way I never even saw coming. I’m curious also that one friend who said like, hey, Here’s my bike, check it out. Apparently they knew something,
Dr. Jennifer Heisz Yeah, yeah. Well and I had heard of runner’s high, I mean we’ve all heard of runner’s high and this friend was a runner. And I had tried running, but because I wasn’t fit at all, it was hard, it was really difficult. And I was seeing him run and he was going out for like a thirty minute jog. And I tried to do that with him. And of course, my untrained body was unable to do that and I was in pain and like then I quit, you know, like running that for me. So then he recommended the bike. And yeah, I thank him for that. He really changed my Life.
Jonathan Fields That leads you and it’s interesting, right also because we think even if for so many of us, if we were really active or really paid attention to Exercise, to moving our bodies. When we were younger, you get into a groove in adult Life where it’s sort of like Life is happening to you and you know whether it’s work demands or family demands or study demands. So much of that is built around the assumption that we are just, we’re going to stop moving. Part of that equation is you give up movement without realizing how counter it is to literally everything that we care about in Life. Mm
Dr. Jennifer Heisz Yeah, and I see this all the time, there’s this, this shift whether it’s, you know, to focus on work and work these days is generally sedentary for most people, putting in Long hours at the office to get ahead professionally. And then not having the energy or time at the end of the day to work out, or you’re a parent and you know, after work you’re getting the kids to extracurriculars, you know, they have all their sports and activities. But then what about your health? And for a lot of parents, there also seems to be this like this concept of selfishness like, Oh I, I need to put others, my children, my family ahead of me. And so my time to Exercise is seen as frivolous. When in fact it’s fundamental. Unfortunately, I see that all the time and I’m trying, you know, it’s important that we prioritize self-care because then we can show up in our Life and be better people for everyone, not just for ourselves. And I often say this to my students. You know, you need to take Exercise breaks, you need to take breaks from work because what ends up happening is, it Infuses this movement, Infuses the brain with the neurochemicals, it needs to thrive. And so when you show up at your desk, you’re ready, you’re primed, you’re creative, you’re focused, your brain is functioning optimally. And this is what we want. This is what we need and it makes our work so much more efficient. So you end up putting in less time, but getting more done. It’s really amazing.
Jonathan Fields Yeah, I remember hearing years ago the phrase and I think I’ve probably uttered it myself to a few people. Exercise creates its own time. I think it’s really interesting because I think when we’re not in that, it’s very hard to understand how that could even be possible because you’re just like there is no extra second in my day. Yes. And when you actually feel the way that you function cognitively, physically, when you’re quote on movement, I think it’s the only way where you start to get buy into that process. So for you, this has led you. This fascination has led you to devote now years teaching and researching in this topic, and really deconstructing it. How does this all work? So one of the things that you shared is that when your first friend first came to you and you went up for a thirty minute run, you’re like, nope, I tried it once, not happening. And this is an interesting phenomenon that you talk about it is, you know, we experience for a variety of reasons that Exercise is hard and there’s, there’s a real, everywhere from a resistance to I would almost argue a repulsion depending on who you are and the nature of what you’re doing it, what’s underneath that? Like what, what’s happening when we say when we look at this thing and say yes, it’s good for me. Yes. I know I should be doing this. It’ll give me all the things I want. And yet I just can’t bring myself to do it. Mm
Dr. Jennifer Heisz Yeah. Well, there’s two things. So first, well and both are related to the brain. The first has to do with our evolutionary past, and the brain’s desire to conserve energy. So if we think back to when the brain evolved, it was at a fundamentally different time when resources were scarce. We had to spend a lot of energy to hunt and gather our food. And when we weren’t doing that, we needed to conserve our energy. And so when we weren’t moving to survive, the brain was, has been designed to keep us still and make us lazy. Flash forward to now we don’t really need to move to survive. I mean, we do for a house, but that could take decades to destroy us, right? There’s no imminent danger. And so what happens is this lazy brain’s appeals make it really difficult. They create this biological resistance to movement. This repulsion to movement because of course we shouldn’t be expending that unnecessary energy at such an extravagant expense, right? So that’s the first part is this, the brain makes us lazy. The second part is related to homeostasis. So the brain wants to maintain homeostasis, and exercising is a physical stressor that pushes us outside of our homeostatic happy place. And so what ends up happening is, you know, the brain panics, it’s hard work. It’s stressful. No, no, we want to be in our, you know, homeostatic happy place. We don’t want to be out. And so Exercise though, technically, is a good stressor. So it’s, we need, believe it or not, we need stress in our Life because it helps us to adapt and grow into stronger versions of ourselves, right? So when we use stress positively to challenge ourselves, push us outside of our comfort zone. What happens is that the body makes all these adaptations the brain makes all these adaptations to rise to that new level. And so we become this better version of ourselves. And we can use Exercise to adapt and tone the stress response to get us there. The problem is that there is some resistance, there’s this additional resistance against just getting into that stress zone. Oh no, we want to just stay right here in this, you know, this sameness. And so there’s the two resistance there, conserve energy and maintain homeostasis. And both of those are working guess against us. And there’s, so there’s such fundamental features of the brain that this is why it’s so difficult for us to get moving. So it’s not your fault. But fortunately, there are things we can do to appease the brain, check the brain and to, you know, moving because once we start moving the muscles release, all of these chemicals that go to the brain that just make it easier every step after that’s easier. It’s like you get into this momentum and the momentum just carries you and you feel amazing and you feel all those feel good feelings you get from Exercise.
Jonathan Fields It’s so interesting that there’s literally physiological aspects that from an evolutionary standpoint, like wired into us in a moment of our history where it was probably really beneficial. But as our lives have changed at breakneck speed, and a lot of the things as early and evolution hasn’t caught up, those same signals are actually compelling us to do things that are, that are destructive by basically not moving. You know, it’s interesting as you’re saying that in a very, very past Life, I was a personal trainer. We’re talking couple of decades ago now. And I was in New York City and I would have one client that I would meet at six a. M on the corner of Central Park and then we would just go run around the Park together, which is kind of funny because I love not a runner, but I love doing that. I showed up one morning and this goes to exactly what you’re saying. I showed up one morning and he was, is kind of chuckling and I was like, what’s going on? And he’s like, I’m thinking I’m paying you for this. He’s like, by the time that you show up and I’m at this corner, you don’t need to run with me anymore. It’s the truth because the hardest thing was getting past all this programming to wake up and to do it and get my shoes on his help. But he’s like as soon as I’m here and I’ve already jogged for five minutes lightly just to get there. He’s like, my body’s already juicing me. He’s like, it’s like I’m good Mhm but it was that programming that he had to get over until the Exercise kicked in and just gave him enough to make you realize, Oh no, this actually feels really good not just physically but for everything else too.
Dr. Jennifer Heisz Yeah, yeah, it’s totally amazing. And then once, you know, once you start moving, it just kicks in like the dopamine starts to flow, motivating the behavior, activating the reward system, the endocannabinoids, get released that further reinforce the behavior.
Jonathan Fields So tell me, tell me more about that because obviously cannabinoids are having like their moment right now or are talking about them a lot of ways. What’s the relationship in particular with that system and Exercise?
Dr. Jennifer Heisz Yeah, so Exercise causes the release of endocannabinoids. So there’s been this whole controversy in the field of Exercise related to what is really causing runner’s high and everybody for a long time thought it was endorphins, you know everyone’s heard of endorphins. But there was this, there was this weird finding in the literature because endorphins would be released in the body through Exercise. But they’re too big to get across the blood brain barrier, so they couldn’t get into the brain, so they couldn’t really be responsible.
Yeah, so there was this, there was this huge backlash about, Oh and Okay. You know, endorphins can’t be the thing. Well, it turns out that endorphins are also produced in the brain, so they are involved. But they’re not the ones that are coming from the body. The ones in the body stay in the body to help like reduce the pain that we feel when our muscles are aching and working hard. Interesting. But there’s other endorphins released in the brain that stimulate the reward system. But also we have these endocannabinoids which are produced within the body from the muscles, and they are small enough to cross the blood brain barrier so they can get in there. And when the endorphins and cannabinoids meet together in the reward system, something really magical happens and that’s when you get the runner’s high. And so it’s like this hedonist hot spots get lit up. And it’s such a rewarding and motivating experience that this is why once you start moving, it’s just, it’s just so much easier to keep going.
Jonathan Fields Yeah, that’s amazing. I remember being told once at the body’s its own pharmacy, and that’s kind of what you’re describing. It’s sort of like if you want so many of the chemistries that we might look for, you know, pharmaceutically or from something externally. So much of it actually can be created through behavior within our own bodies.
Dr. Jennifer Heisz Yes, and I think this is really coming to bear. Now especially, you know, in the aftermath of the pandemic rates of depression and Anxiety have have increased by twenty five percent or more even. People are seeking help. A lot of them are going to their physician and getting an antidepressant drug. But for one in three people who take that drug, it doesn’t work. Right? It works for some people, but not for everybody. And especially, I think, because the pandemic, the increase in mental health is related to chronic stress or the stress of the uncertainty of this situation. And this stress induced depression seems unlike unresponsive to antidepressants, often because the root cause of it is not serotonin, or a lack of serotonin, which the drugs treat, but rather inflammation, and inflammation. When it gets into the brain, it alters these pathways that make it difficult to feel good. And so Exercise because it’s anti-inflammatory, the MYO kinds released from the muscle. Those actually create this anti-inflammatory effect. It is a pharmacy for people who have this drug resistant depression. It is the medicine they need and it, it has clinically significant benefits for depression reduction on par with antidepressant drugs. Just fascinating.
Jonathan Fields Yeah, it’s so interesting. I remember reading John Brady’s work years ago. He wrote a book called spark actually, and my recollection is he was a psychiatrist and he used to treat some of his patients with depression by having them essentially Sprint. And found just a profound effect of that. But what you just shared is really interesting, which is that the particular thing that is leading people to experience high levels of stress and Anxiety and, and depression now is different than maybe like if we look five years ago. And we sort of looked at it because if it’s more inflammation based rather than serotonin oriented. And most of the antidepressants that are prescribed are SSRI’s like they’re serotonin based. It would make sense that this particular moment would bring people to a state of mind that was more resistant to the traditional pharmaceutical way of approaching it.
Dr. Jennifer Heisz And I don’t think that’s really general knowledge. I think that people think that if they take an antidepressant, they’re going to feel better. And for a lot of people, that’s not the case. And so you can imagine this quite hopeless feeling that you know, you finally have the courage to go to your doctor and say, you know, I’m not, well, I need some help. You get the medication, it doesn’t work, you go back. They give you another Prescription for a different version. It doesn’t work. And this happens. People can be prescribed three different forms and the discussion around Exercise or other, you know, lifestyle Changes sometimes is not even brought to the table. And this is what I would really like to have change not, I’m not anti medication. I think it certainly is transformative for people who, who it does work for and it can be Life altering for them. But there needs to be a more wholesome conversation around. How do we manage our health? How do we manage our mental health? Prescription drugs may be one part of it, but lifestyle and Exercise. Given that it has the same benefits at reducing our depression as a pharmaceutical, it just blows my mind that this is not part of the regular conversation.
Jonathan Fields I wonder how much of that is based around sort of a culture of assuming non-compliance with patients or with clients, you know, yet this has been one of the, the things that I think the world of physicians and to a certain extent, rightfully so. Have said, you know, like I can like I can, I can tell you what to do. I can give you three options and I can also show you the research that says there may be the, the equally effective the efficacy is the same between these two different things are three different things. One is a pill that you literally just have to pop into your mouth once a day. The other is a thing that you have to do. And as we were just describing in the beginning, a lot of people are wired not to want to do it. And it’s going to take anywhere from fifteen to minutes to an hour out of your day when you’re already feeling like you’re stressed and you don’t have the energy to do it. That compliance, even if somebody is aware of the fact that of the data and the research and the efficacy, that compliance of saying to somebody take two seconds to pop this thing into you. Or take an hour to do this thing that you actually don’t want to do and can’t imagine ever wanting to do. That’s got to be, you know, just a really complex, sort of Human behavioral challenge.
Dr. Jennifer Heisz Yes, you’re absolutely right. Even at the start of the pandemic, we conducted a survey just to get the pulse of the population. Like, how are you feeling? Are you able to be active? And what we found, not surprisingly, stress was up, depression, Anxiety up, physical activity was down. People shifted why they wanted to be active, so they instead of being active to look good that they wanted to be active to feel good. But there was this mental health paradox. So people wanted to work out to improve their mental health, but their mental health was getting in the way. So they felt too stressed or anxious to do it and they lacked the motivation, which is a symptom of depression. So yes, you’re absolutely right that there is this additional barrier when you’re not mentally. Well, that creates an even additional resistance to movement. And I can see that the compliance piece being tricky. But the research is so compelling that it’s every step counts. So it doesn’t have to be a one hour workout. It doesn’t even have to be a half an hour workout. And I think that that’s the problem is that we’re, we’re prescribing Exercise when Exercise is prescribed. It’s prescribed in the way that we prescribe for physical health, and you can get by with much less for mental health. The research is so compelling that the difference between no Exercise or just sitting on the couch all day and just even a little bit of Exercise can be transformative. And then as we were talking about before, once you start moving, it becomes easier to keep moving. And so the narrative around that has to change, it’s not about performance or hour long activity sessions. It’s like some is better than none. Walk around the Park, walk down the driveway. If that’s all you can muster today. Do a little bit of movement. In fact, what I recommend people do is just break up your sedentary time as a starting point. So we’re all sitting all day. Every thirty minutes just stand up. Do a two minute movement break. This is enough to restore blood flow to the brain. Infusing the prefrontal cortex with oxygenated blood flow helps you focus, be more creative when we’re able to think outside the box are less likely to ruminate on negative thinking, which is a symptom of depression. And so it can start etching away at those symptoms that are preventing us from being active. And well,
Jonathan Fields I love that. I love that the teasing out of Exercise that you do for quote, like fitness slash performance things and where there’s the minimum dose is higher, longer maybe higher intensity versus what you’re doing, just as a sort of like a minimum dose for baseline mental health. And that like it planting the seeds as a little bit actually goes a long way. I would imagine a lot more people would say yes to that. And maybe that just organically starts to grow in duration and intensity over time because it feels good.
Dr. Jennifer Heisz Yeah. And this idea that you don’t necessarily have to have a plan because you’re not doing it for performance, right? And this idea that it could be just an open ended Exercise session. So during this time period, I’m going to move my body, you know, and just almost like intuitive movement. And using that as a way to start healing the mind. I think that that could have more uptake and it takes some of the pressure off the medical community as well because they’re not really trained to prescribe Exercise anyways. They’re probably already a little bit reluctant to do so. They look to the physical activity guidelines that say one hundred and fifty minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week. And for somebody who is not moving, Holy cow, is that intimidating? Right? So I think once we get this message out and more and more research are converging, edging on this idea that something is better than nothing, just every step counts. And I think that that conceptually is way easier to get behind both from a Prescription perspective, like just add a walk a day, you know, it doesn’t even have to be that long. And from a patient perspective like, Oh yeah, I could walk to the mailbox and get my mail and come back. I don’t have to drive the car to get the mail.
Jonathan Fields Yeah, I love that. It really distills it down to its essence. It’s sort of like some of the behavioral work I’ve seen around building habits, you know, and it’s really about like, what is the simplest step that you could commit to? What is the thing where it’s literally impossible to have resistance. So even if it’s not efficacious, just to start to build the behavior, you know, to build the pattern that eventually becomes a habit, and then the behavior expands like over time, within that, that habit loop and that’s, it feels like that’s kind of what we’re talking about we’re making it so easy that it’s almost impossible to say, well, I couldn’t do that.
Dr. Jennifer Heisz Yeah. Yeah, exactly, in that first step, even though it’s so, so tiny, so little, it’s enough to start Breaking that inertia. Breaking the biological resistance down. Yeah, yeah, it’s amazing.
Jonathan Fields What’s your take on? There’s another, something else that I’ve seen in the world of fitness that I, for a long time have felt is really, is debilitating. That adds to this, to sort of like the two physiological factors that stop people from wanting to do this. And that’s boredom, you know, when we were kids, we exercised like probably harder than we’ll ever Exercise for our entire adult lives. And, but we didn’t call it Exercise, we called the Play and I always wondered, well, what’s the distinction there like, why, why would be willing to go like, go do anything and like so exhausted that our head hits the pillow at night and we literally cannot keep our eyes open because there’s nothing left in US. And yet the concept of doing, exerting ourselves on that level as an adult, feels absolutely almost horrifying to somebody like what’s the difference in my sense, is that part of that also beyond the wiring that you describe, that I think is, is, is so essential to it is, is boredom like we have taken, engaging the mind out of the process of moving the body. And so much of what we do is we stuff ourselves into boxes built around machines that make us move in this repetitive way over and over and over. And it’s so mind numbing so quickly that when ends up happening, well we then we build in first in Yeah, like a decade ago it was TVs all over the place. And now it’s like little screens on top of your things. You can surf the Internet to distract us from how utterly boring this repetitive motion is. And I wonder whether, you know, like a big part of the resistance also is just that. We’ve taken the mind out of the joy of movement like we’re not engaging in a way where when we used to, to call it Play, we weren’t. Whether that’s one of the big distinctions. I’m curious what your take is on that.
Dr. Jennifer Heisz Yes. One hundred percent. The treadmill is not my favorite. And in my book I talk about full disclosure in the lab. We use the treadmill a lot. And so we’ll bring you in for an Exercise study. We’ll put you on the treadmill and we won’t even give you an option of what Exercise you’re doing this. You’re staring at a blank wall. There’s no music. It’s in a temperature controlled room. It doesn’t get any more boring than that. And from like a participant perspective, you’re spending the whole time thinking like, suppressing that boredom suppressing the how much more time is left? Has it only been five minutes? Like how much longer do I have to do this? And it’s really sucked the joy out of it. And so you’re right with clay, it’s so much more mentally engaging and a lot of sports the same when we have an opponent, a competitor, right? It’s spontaneous, it’s improvised. And what ends up happening is we’re engaging a totally different brain network. So when we’re inhibiting distractions and suppressing boredom, this requires like our inhibitory control which is mediated by the prefrontal cortex. But when we’re engaged in Play, we’re actually engaging our mental flexibility. And so this is sort of much more of a dynamic process where, you know, we’re thinking on the fly were reacting to the situation where, you know, we’re having fun and it’s like a, it’s an intellectual movement. Play with, with our competitor. And yeah, so that trains the brain in a fundamentally different way. And in fact, the research is really interesting around sport and creativity because Play is a really amazing way to boost creativity. So children who do structured sport versus Play, they have to have like the, the ideal ratio of course you need some sport to train skill. But the ideal ratio is fifty fifty, so fifty per free Play, fifty percent organized sport compared to like seventy percent structured. And thirty percent free Play and the fifty fifty produces more creative adults later in Life, which is really amazing. And when we break it down into like which sports create the most like creative people, it turns out it’s not like the artistic sports, which you might think like gymnastics or figure skating or synchronized swimming. But it’s the net and combat sports. And the reason why is like if you think about it, when you’re a gymnast, you’ve got this routine, you’ve memorized the routine, you have to execute the routine, you know, and you’re ignoring all distractions which is, looks a lot like the treadmill, right? Whereas with these net and combat sports, you’re reacting to your opponent, it’s improvised, it’s fun. You know, you can’t predict what’s happening next. And so you’re one hundred percent in the moment and it creates this like flow, like experience where you’re like, you’re challenged, you’re mentally engaged, you’re socially engaged. You end up switching back and forth between your inhibitory control and your mental flexibility to the point where they almost become in synchrony or aligned. And this is what gives us that flow like experience where we’re like, we’re focused. But we have full access to the repertoire of our entire creative mind, which just to me is like, we need to get back to that, right. And it doesn’t necessarily need to be sport, but it certainly isn’t treadmill running right. And maybe it’s trail running with people and friends, or, you know, exploring a new route or, you know, navigating through a new city. And you could see how the mind and gets variously engaged in these different levels of activity. And yes, so I think you’re absolutely right. We need to bring the mind back into the movement so that it’s less mind numbing. Right?
Jonathan Fields Yeah. And I feel like there’s definitely been an evolution in like a lot of home based cycling programs and stuff like that. Now now have these beautiful screens and people in real time with you and they’re taking on journeys. And I think that that can really help transform for, for those who can’t get outside and can’t do all this like or Play a sport or a local club. I feel like there are more offerings that are making that a little more accessible than it used to be. It’s funny that you bring up gymnastics. I was, I trained as a gymnast really the first two years of my Life and experienced exactly what you said like I would be working one single routine for hundreds and hundreds of hours over and over and over. And it’s interesting because I was thinking like was my mind really checked in and after a certain amount of time it was just utter, it was just complete routine. You know, it was sort of like I was checking boxes.
Dr. Jennifer Heisz You must have been super focused.
Jonathan Fields I was but, but then I also like I love mountain biking and I like going fast in trees because if you…that your mind has to be really there in the moment. Or else you’re in the dirt or a tree. So it’s sort of like the nature of the activity demands that you are present utterly present and just Changes it and it makes it so much more joyful. Mm Hmm. You, you talked about this, the notion of Exercise and depression and its relationship also to inflammation in the body. In addition to depression, which we’re seeing historical rate of now. And you also referenced Anxiety. Is there a similar mechanism for what Anxiety actually is? Is there an inflammatory tie in to that and does Exercise work similarly to that?
Dr. Jennifer Heisz Well, depression and Anxiety often co-occur. There is a link with inflammation and Anxiety as well. It’s a slightly different mechanism, but it’s, it’s similar. So when it comes to Anxiety, the amygdala is really a key brain region involved. And the amygdala is our threat detection center. It’s, it evokes fear, it has a direct link to the stress response. So once it gets activated, it turns on the stress response in people who have experienced a traumatic event. Some of them will develop post-traumatic stress disorder and we see heightened activity of the amygdala even when they’re not in a stressful situation. So that’s the role of the amygdala in Anxiety. And the very interesting thing though is that not everybody who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD. And so there’s been a lot of research into wondering what’s protecting them. And it turns out there’s this resiliency factor called Neuropeptide Y, or NP, Y, and Neuropeptide Y seems when the brain makes more of this, it’s less likely to be damaged by a traumatic event. It’s more protected, it’s more resilient, which is really amazing. And you can make more of this Neuropeptide Y with Exercise, which is really cool. And Neuropeptide Y actually it interacts with the microglia in the, in the brain, to reduce inflammation, to reduce their reactivity. So there is the link with the inflammation part. And the thing I like the most about that research is that it can just be again, light to moderate activity like a self-paced walk is enough. You know, a fun filled bike ride. Maybe not like an intensive mountain bike ride that’s getting into a different level. But you’d probably still get some Neuropeptide Y relief then, but yeah, so, so the mechanism of action seems to be a little bit different because the amygdala is involved with depression, it’s much more, is happening at the hippocampus, which many people know the hippocampus as like a main memory center, it’s the one that’s damaged by alzheimer’s disease, but it’s also the brain region that shuts off the stress response. So it helps to shut off the stress response. And when, when inflammations in Play, it starts to damage the hippocampus and, and damage that off switch. So, Exercise helps to increase growth factors in the brain in the hippocampus that help to restore and protect the hippocampus from chronic stress. So that it’s able to turn off the stress system and prevent stress induced depression.
Jonathan Fields Mm Hmm. So interesting. Okay. So the inflammation is tied into these different states and Exercise has a potential mediating effect on inflammation. Can you have too much of a good thing? Like because if you really aggressively push yourself, can that actually increase inflammation and then flow back up into increasing Anxiety potentially or like psychological symptomology.
Dr. Jennifer Heisz Yeah, and I think this is what we’re seeing at the elite level with these athletes who are suffering from overtraining syndrome and mental health issues and have to like withdraw from something that they’ve been working their whole Life to achieve. Right. Like how devastating is that? And I think it’s because unfortunately, a lot of coaches and a lot of athletes, there’s still so much stigma within the athletic community that they’re not taking into account their mental health when they’re, when they’re designing their training regimes. What ends up happening. We have one stress response for all stressors. So if, if it’s already on and activated from psychological stress in your Life, and then you layer on top of that, the physical stress of Exercise, you’re not going to be able to tolerate as much as you would if you were calmer, you know. And so it puts you the good stress we were talking about, which helps the body adapt and grow stronger. That’s we refer to that as aloe status. But when we get too much of that, like stress overload, it becomes aloe. Static load, which starts to actually damage and weaken the body rather than strengthen it. And so this can lead to things like overtraining syndrome where it looks a lot like depression, right? You’re fatigued, you’re motivated, you don’t want to Exercise anymore. And this can happen at the elite level when they’re training really hard and overloading, but especially when they’re not factoring the mental health piece. And. And so we’re, we’re starting to look at this in my lab trying to figure out how we can better account for the stressors in athletes. Life in a way that they don’t feel stigmatized against. Because they don’t want to tell their coach, they’re anxious and depressed because that might mean they don’t get to Play, right, or they don’t get to perform. And so it turns out, at least in our preliminary research that student athletes at least will talk about their stress, academic stress load more readily than their Anxiety level, but the two are correlated. And so we’re trying to develop some alternative ways to better gauge that because once we know that we can adapt their training protocol so that we prevent them from overtraining and getting into that position in the first place.
Jonathan Fields Yeah, it’s like the academic stress is more socially acceptable to say that you’re experiencing, whereas just a generalized Anxiety or depression or malaise. That’s not a sort of like a valid and maybe because so few people talk about it. It’s not nearly as normalized as academic stresses. Mm Hmm. So all of this, when you look at it, then if we take this out of the domain of, of athletes training in college or for, you know, professional sport, whatever it is, but just everyday folks. Okay, so then they have academic stress, but they may have a lot of professional stress and lifestyle stress. And I would imagine these all still pile on in a similar way and it’s almost like there’s a tipping point. You know, like you’re, you can function, you can function, you can function, you can function. And then there’s one, maybe innocuous additional stressor, which seems like it shouldn’t really be doing anything to you. But it’s the final thing that, that tips, everything over. Would that be an apt sort of analogy?
Dr. Jennifer Heisz Yeah, yeah. I mean, it can be like, I mean, if I reflect back at the beginning of the pandemic, the stress, I was training at the time for an Ironman so I was pushing it. Right. And I had been able to tolerate these really heavy stress loads of Exercise like really intense workouts the pandemic hit. And I couldn’t like, I would go out for a run and have a panic attack because the stress load was so intense for my body. And my mind was, you know, so anxious because of the situation. So I think sometimes it can be one thing, but sometimes it can also be the way we react to stress. So there’s some really interesting research that shows that it’s not necessarily the level of stress that you have in your Life, but how you react to it. There’s this research that shows when people are more Moody. So like if they get really high on those good days and really, really low, angry, intense on those bad days. And it’s this undulation this, you know, this pendulum that swings between good and bad days. That can really start to damage the body. That increases inflammation. And then can cause Anxiety and depression.
Jonathan Fields One of the really big things that a lot of people are exploring in the world of fitness and well-being on the side of nutrition is some form of time Restricted eating, intermittent fasting, all these different things. And part of the benefit of that, that I’ve seen in some of the conversation and the literature is that it creates a certain stress in the system like overemphasis in the system. And which is, you know, in theory, if it’s contained within a larger experience of stress like should be a good stress or that, that cultivates adaptation. But I wonder if that in the context of all sorts of other things that add into it. And then either the inability to move your body or trying to completely, physically overload your body at the same time actually can become a negative.
Dr. Jennifer Heisz Hmm. Yeah, so I’m a, I’m a big proponent of, of time restricted eating. It is something I do in my life and, and you’re absolutely right. It’s a subtle stressor for the body, right. And there are a lot of other amazing things that intermittent fasting and, and fasting does to both the body and the brain. But yeah, that activation, the subtle activation of the stress piece is one of them. But you’re right, it may not work all the time and sometimes it makes you feel really good and other times you like shit. And so I think there’s this, there should be this, you know, almost intuitive approach to both, you know, exercising and eating where you know, if you’re feeling really good one day that might be the day that you want to try out Restricted fasting. And this is, this is essentially how I live my Life. I Evenflo with how I feel, and I think it creates this better tune in attunement with your body so that you’re, you’re more in touch with your physiological needs. But it’s matching your psychological state with, you know, how challenging you want to make your day. I think people go through their Life and they expect, okay, I’ve got to perform at this level all the time. And you know, you probably experience this to like, you know, last week at the gym. I was feeling amazing and I got this personal best and today I don’t feel good and it’s so hard and I can’t get there. And what’s wrong with me? Nothing. You know, there might just be a lot going on in your Life. And so I think you, we really do need to just take a step back and be more compassionate with ourselves because we don’t, I don’t think a lot of the time we realize the pressure that Life throws at us and the pressure that we’re under. And sometimes we compartmentalize the stressors in our Life and we don’t realize that they’re actually all adding together. And so if you’re not able to perform as well as you are at the gym as you did last week, then maybe that’s a cue to let you know. Oh , what else is going on in your Life? Oh, you had that argument with your friend. Wow. That could count, you know, or there was that deadline at work and or you didn’t sleep well last night. I mean, all of these things add up and I think we so readily compartmentalize our life that, that we can often miss them.
Jonathan Fields Yeah, I so agree and I would imagine too like a lot of folks would say like, Oh this is the day I’m supposed to go Exercise. I’m just not, I’m not feeling good. I’m stressed out. It’s now or my body doesn’t feel good. I’ll skip today. I think part of what you’re saying here is, well, maybe the better thing is actually just go for a walk. Mm Hmm. Because your body may not actually be ready to handle that level of stress for your whole system, but a gentler approach to simply like moving may actually be super beneficial to you both physically and psychologically at that moment in time. So it’s sort of like, rather than it’s just like on or off or Yes or no, it’s like, let me sort of like adapt the dose to what’s, what I’m hearing on any given day.
Dr. Jennifer Heisz Yeah. And I actually adopt, I call it my mental health mode of exercise. So if I, if I have scheduled a thirty minute jog and I’m not feeling well, I’ll go for the thirty minute walk. I’ll put the time in, but I’ll take off the intensity. And I think that that’s just such a such a, a good approach to movement for mental health.
Jonathan Fields Yeah. You just used a word that I want to touch on also and that is sleep. Mm Hmm. I’ve been fascinated by the relationship between Exercise and sleep and over years I’ve heard research that seems to sort of like, argue one way and then ten years later it’s like, Oh no, the opposite is true. Talk to me a bit about the relationship between Exercise and sleep.
Dr. Jennifer Heisz The coolest part about this is that it’s so it goes back to like cellular energy currency, right? So ATP is the cell’s energy currency that we break down to get energy. And when we break down ATP, it produces this byproduct called adenosine and adenosine throughout the day as we do work, mental work, physical work, it starts to build up. And then once it reaches a certain threshold, it triggers sleep. So it’s a natural sleeping aid. The brain has receptors for adenosine that triggers sleep. And when we move more during the day, we break down more ATP. We build up more adenosine and so we sleep more soundly, we fall asleep faster and we trigger sleep because we’ve created more of this natural sleep aid. So that’s, I think that’s one of the most just beautiful, seamless interactions between exercising, moving more during the day and sleeping better at night. And then the other thing is that Exercise is actually a great time cue. Can be a great time Q in the same way that the sun is a great time queue. So as humans are, you know, we’re so strange, right? And the rain is so interesting. And for, for whatever reason. Our circadian clock, like the, the biological clock, the genetic machinery is not set to twenty four hours. Hmm. Not exactly. It actually runs a little late. Is a twenty four point two hours on average. Nobody knows what that extra point to is for. But if you were to go and live in a dark cave, your sleep schedule, your sleep schedule would slowly drift later and later and later and later. And actually scientists have done this, which is really fascinating. So every morning or every day, we have to reset that clock so that we align our brain time with real time. And of course the sun is one of the most powerful clock receptors. And this works through the production of melatonin, for example. And Exercise research shows that Exercise is almost as good at resetting the brain’s clock as the sun. And when you combine the two together, you get this added synergistic effect. So if you try to Exercise at the same time every day, doing it outside in the sun, then this can help realign your brain time with clock time. And then that can help you fall asleep more irregularly, faster wake up around the same time every day. And then it can help even just realign all your body systems so that you’re functioning better.
Jonathan Fields Okay, so then does that mean that if we want to optimize for sleep, we should all be exercising first thing in the morning because some of what I’ve heard over time is that if you exercise somewhere between two to four hours before you go to bed and with some level of intensity, it increases your body temperature. And it’s the reduction of temperature post exercise back to sort of like what you like it normally would be that also triggers sleep. So is that wrong, or is it just working on two different mechanisms?
Dr. Jennifer Heisz There was a recent review of all the studies looking at time of day and Exercise. And generally working out in the evening is fine. Unless you’ve elevated your heart rate, I think it was twenty five beats above baseline and it’s still elevated. Twenty five beats above baseline. When you’re going to bed in, it’s kind of like the same with the temperature thing. Your temperature hasn’t come back down to baseline and then, you know, it hasn’t gone even further when we trigger sleep, you know, this idea. But if the heart rate is elevated before you go to bed, then that may take you. I think it was. If it’s elevated twenty five beats above baseline, it might take you about fourteen minutes longer to fall asleep. That was just one study. So other studies have shown just like light to moderate Exercise is actually fine and will promote sleep. It’s just this intensive, vigorous Exercise that could potentially elevate your heart rate above baseline quite substantially. Right? And it kind of like it’s similar to when we go to bed, feeling anxious, right? Like so when we’re anxious, like our heart rates and races in the same way. And if our heartbeat is up and we’re trying to go to sleep, you know what happens like, you’re just like your mind’s just racing, you’re not sleeping, you know? And so it’s that the same sort of idea with Exercise. So yeah, there is a lot of talk around you shouldn’t Exercise before bed, but for some people that they love exercising in the evening, right. And that’s just like it works for their schedule. It, you know, it makes them feel good. It helps them de-stress from the day, and so I would say go for it, and it is around that vigorous intensity piece and just checking to make sure your heart rate is back down to baseline when you’re trying to go to sleep.
Jonathan Fields Yeah, no, that makes a lot of sense to me and I wonder if heart rate variability plays into this also to a certain extent. And whereas, the more trained you are maybe the quicker your heart rate recovers more readily and that actually so you can almost train the ability over time to be able to do that intense, more intense Exercise later in the day. If that just happens to be what you like or what works for your schedule, and eventually your system will learn to recover from it faster and drop you down into that downregulated state more readily.
Dr. Jennifer Heisz Yeah, yeah. You’re right, so like heart rate variability is really reflecting that balance between the sympathetic nervous system, which is the fight or flight and the parasympathetic which is rest or digest. And when we vigorously exercise, it’s the sympathetic that’s dominating. But athletes have this strong parasympathetic nervous system, you know, trained individuals that, that can bring this sympathetic nervous system back down to baseline and restore balance faster than untrained. So yes, your logic would apply there. I don’t think it’s been tested, but it would work. We should run that experiment.
Jonathan Fields One last thing I want to touch on, and you kind of referenced it earlier in our conversation, and that is the relationship between Exercise and things like cognitive function, intelligence focus, creativity. And I know that you talk about, and there’s a research around literally like how Exercise affects things that are measurable, like academic performance, but also creativity. And these are things that whether it’s academic performance or just performing at a higher level of, of cognitive function and problem solving in your job or in Life. We all want and some people are actually measured by like as part of their profession. Talk to me a bit about the relationship between Exercise and these things.
Dr. Jennifer Heisz Well, as I was mentioning, you know, when we sit for long periods of time, the body goes into hibernation mode and blood flow reduces to the brain. So the brain isn’t getting the vital nutrients, it needs to think clearly and to focus and to be creative. So the research shows every thirty minutes about get up for a two minute movement break, and this is enough to help restore blood flow to the brain, to the prefrontal cortex. When we move more and more vigorously, it also releases epinephrine and norepinephrine, which is like, you know, adrenaline noradrenaline. Same thing. And this helps stimulate the prefrontal cortex to enhance our focus. And when we move away from our desk, even just changing the scenery, changing the context, and we’re thinking about something else, even a self-paced walk outside a session of yoga. These things have been shown to boost creativity. And the reason why is because you are flexing different muscles within your brain. Different networks get engaged. So when we’re doing focused work, we need to engage in our inhibitory control. But when we start tasks switching between like different contexts and different activities that really is engaging, you know, the mental flexibility. And that is what we need to think outside the box to think creatively, to think innovatively. And absolutely that’s what we want. And so we often hear, you know, Oh, I don’t have time for Exercise because I gotta get this work done. And just sitting there and grinding it out, is actually counterproductive. It would be much better for you to go out and have it. Like a nice walk and I don’t know about you, but I always come up with my best ideas when I’m moving. When you know it’s flowing, you know, you’re flowing the idea, you’re not forcing things. You’re allowing them to just be and come and, and the beautiful thing is that, you know, we often think what we have in conscious mind is all that the brain is doing. But it’s not. Our mind is one thing, but the brain is this parallel processor that is doing so much behind the scenes. And the mind is just, you know, it’s just like seven inch beady, little part of it, just like a window onto what the brain is doing. And when we move and give space for the brain to bring up some creative ideas to the surface to bubble up to the mind, then we can surprise ourselves. Otherwise, if we fix too much on what we see right in front of us, we sometimes don’t get access to the deeper insights that we may be wanting.
Jonathan Fields Yeah, I love that and it resonates with me even before these last few years. When I was living in New York City, I had a standard rule which was if you’re going to meet with me, either in person or you like, used to be always on the call. Now it’s always on video that if we’re going to have a meeting, I would meet you on the corner of Central Park and we were going to walk and talk, you know, or if I was having a phone call, I would be on my headset, the understanding is you’re going to hear the noise of the city in the background, and I’m going to be walking around until I get into Central Park and it’s a little bit quieter. And part of it was because I wanted to be able to move my body and maybe I had a stacked up day and I couldn’t figure out how to do it. But part of it is what you’re describing also, which is I intuitively had this sense that if you want the best from me, you want me moving. You don’t want me seated because my brain would just consistently come up. It would connect dots differently. When I was like, if we were strategizing or creating or brainstorming, like I always wanted to be moving physically moving because I could just tell the quality of the output, the creative output was different. It was a higher level. I found it really interesting because now the last two years, so many people, the default has now become let’s jump on video, you know, which tethers most people to being sedentary. And I’ve sort of started to push back against and say like if visual is needed for the work that we’re about to do, awesome, let’s do it. If not, I’m going to be outside with a headset on where I am now likely hiking in the mountains. And that’s how we’re going to have this meeting or this conversation, or this brainstorm or whatever it is. And not only does it allow me to move my body and get all the psychological benefits of that, but I also really feel like it helps the work output.
Dr. Jennifer Heisz Hmm. Yeah, it’s so amazing. You get access to so much more repertoire because you’re in this open state. You know, you’re not fixed, you’re not uncomfortable. Your body’s not telling you, okay, we got to get moving. You know, this is , you know, boring again, you know, not maybe, you know, the conversation is interesting, but the body’s bored and so is pulling you away, you know, and so you’re not, you know, there is that resistance that, that want to rush it rather than when you’re when you’re in this space and, and moving your body in a way that feels good. Then your body is encouraged. It wants you to stay there. The brain feels open and ready. And yeah, you have access to your full repertoire and the creative juices can just start flowing and I just love that.
Jonathan Fields Yeah. So one last thing that just sort of in my mind before, before we start to wrap, which is I think a lot of the conversations that we’ve been having part of the underlying assumption may be that you are quote, able bodied that you have a certain ability to move, but it sounds like a lot of what you’re saying here is also so much of the benefit doesn’t come from having to have full extreme body movement that regardless of your level of ability or disability, whatever is accessible to you in the context of movement there’s a benefit to that, is that accurate?
Dr. Jennifer Heisz I love that you brought that up and I’m trying to bring that into the conversation because it, it is the most beautiful part of, of mental health movement for mental health is that it is so inclusive. And it can be so inclusive and people can move in ways that, that are, they are able to and that feel good for their own bodies. And that’s, comes back to this intuitive movement. This open ended idea about movement. And in the book I try to make sure that, you know, the research has been pretty specific about what types of things it tests it tests like running, walking cycling, which some people can’t do right. And so I’m very conscious in the book to make sure that I give all the options. So if we break down the Exercise to its kernel, you know, what’s the core element that, that’s the benefit. Then how can we get that in other different forms of movement and it’s amazing and you can, you know, it could be dancing, it could be arm cycling. It could be many different ways of moving the body and it’s available and accessible to everybody in, in ways that that would feel good. So I think, I think that’s a really Yeah, great way to end.
Jonathan Fields Yeah. So coming full circle and this container of Good Life Project, I always wrap with the same question, which is if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?
Dr. Jennifer Heisz To live a good life…you gotta move your body. Yeah, I think moving your body in ways that feel good for you.
Jonathan Fields Hmm. Thank you.