Neuroprotective Exercises for Mental Health

Why is exercise neuroprotective and how can we use it to improve the structural and functional integrity of the brain to protect against neurodegenerative conditions and improve our mental health? In this post you will see how integrating the 3-key pieces of peak performance leads to full Mind-Body Mastery.

Let’s get clear on this – we have gone past the stage where we are simply guessing what is happening in the human brain. Despite the advancements, brain research is still dangerously one-sided since we spend so much time researching what is wrong with the brain rather than what is right.

In this video I will focus on the most powerful peak performance technique known to humankind: MOVEMENT. I’m not going to focus on any specific movement pattern but rather highlight how the human brain has been designed to move and breakdown why the key to Mind-Body Mastery is embedded in our neural connectivity itself.

Movement and neuroprotective effects on Brain Structure

Even at the very early stage of my career as a neuroscientist, I valued the importance of movement. I simply understood this as the first principle of neuroscience: use it or lose it. As my passion for neuroscience and movement grew simultaneously, I became increasingly aware of how movement is largely responsible for the plasticity our brain architecture.

 The brain is organised in two distinct but interconnected ways. We’ll get to the second way the brain is organised in a moment but let’s first consider the most obvious way the brain is organised which is how it is structurally wired. The brain doesn’t exist as a 2kg blob inside our skull but rather – a highly organised network of neurons wired for survival.

The brain can broadly be organised into these 5 key neural networks:


  1. Brain stem network – regulating the autonomic activity of body.
  2. Limbic network – your emotional network.
  3. Association areas – takes distributed information from the frontal, temporal and parietal cortex to integrate your sensory information, memory and language processing.
  4. Projection network – connects many areas of the sensory-motor cortices to the brainstem.
  5. Callosal fibres – bilateral integration of inter-hemispheric information travels horizontally across the two hemispheres.

The structural integrity of these network is not pre-established. As we age these networks begin to consolidate and shapes our behaviour, personality and what we choose to desire. In some cases, brain networks can be repurposed such as when someone is vision impaired, their visual networks can be re-calibrated to process sound and spatial information so that the brain does not rely on visual input alone.

You may be asking what does movement have to do with this?

Movement up-regulates the most widely distributed neurotrophin in the brain – Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF). The presence of BDNF in the blood serum is associated with neurogenesis, longterm neuroplasticity and activation of pro-survival genes in the brain.

Quite literally, BDNF wires the brain for peak performance.

If you have been following the #buildyourbrain series so far, you’ll see that there is a strong focus on lasting wellbeing and longevity. There is nothing out there that does a better job at this than movement. Put simply, if you don’t keep moving, one day you won’t be able to: use it or lose it. I’ve linked previous parts of the #buildyourbrain series below, so be sure to check these out.

    ➡️ (Part 1)

    ➡️ (Part 2)

    ➡️ (Part 3)

The bolt-on benefits on Functional Integrity

Now let’s have a look at the second way the brain is organised which is functionally. I simply understood this second principle of neuroscience as: neurons that fire together, wire together.

We use a different MRI technique to map the brain functionally called fMRI which shows how the brain lights up as the signal cascade alters blood flow to different parts of the brain. Understanding how blood flow influences brain function is the missing link that we’ll explore in the final piece of this puzzle.

Even though the brain is structurally connected, not all networks fire at once. This dispels  the common myth that we only use 10% of our brain. The brain is the most metabolically expansive organ in the body and it cannot afford to use only 10%. The brain use 20% of your metabolically energy even though it only weighs 2% of your body mass. This is 10 times more than any other organ. To optimise for cost and efficiency – the brain only fires certain neural networks at any given moment. Brain regions that fire together are said to be functionally connected.

If you have dipped you toe into the over-saturated world of  peak performance, you may have come across flow state and the theory of transient hypofrontality. These theories are head-heavy and only scratch the surface of Mind-Body Mastery. For the purpose of this post I want bridge the gap between brain and body so we’ll focus on two major functional networks – the Default Mode Network (DMN) and the Interoceptive Network.

 The Default Mode Network refers to the back ground chatter of the mind and I mapped the activity of this network in this publication.

An overactive DMN is evident in overthinking, overanalysing, generalised anxiety disorder or simply when you experience negative or intrusive thoughts.

With Movement Teacher Ido Portal

Because the brain is optimised for cost-efficiency, not all brain networks can fire at once. Movement takes attention away from the DMN and activates the interoceptive network that monitors your internal homeostatic balance (the brainstem-projection fibres network). A long-term movement practice strengthens the connection between brain and body since neurons that fire together, wire together, there is no better way to stimulate your vagus nerve than improving this communication between brain and body to heighten your Vagal Tone.

Over thinking, over analyzing separates the body from the mind. Withering my intuition leaving opportunities behind 

– Lateralus, Tool.

The Key to Mind-Body Mastery

Now let’s get into some real world applications. The brain-body connection is far more powerful than modern medicine cares to admit. Mental health institutions provide support, yet they speak directly to the weak and wounded part of you with a tone of apathy is devoid of soul or meaning. Medication can help, yet when you look at major mental health conditions such as depression, 30% of depression patients are treatment resistant. Of those who do respond to medication, there is a 50% relapse rate. This increase to over 70% after the second episode. At best, you get a slightly better version of your former self.

Is this what you are looking for???

Information has a half-life and if we are still clinging to outdated information, we are not only prolonging the progress of brain research but also global health and wellbeing.

By now it’s already evident that the presence of BDNF promotes neuroplasticity and overall structural and functional integrity of the brain. The final piece of this puzzle rests in your heart beat.

Remember how we measure functional connectivity of the brain using blood flow? These changes is blood flow is the direct result of the moment to moment changes in your heart beat – know as heart rate variability (HRV). A high HRV means that your nervous system is adaptive and responsive to change. Indeed, low HRV is a predictor for poor  response to treatment in depression, anxiety and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Instead of calling patients treatment resistant let’s consider the possibility that it was never about the medication but rather: a solid brain-body foundation wasn’t set in the first place!!!

High HRV strengthens your vagal tone – the communication between brain and body. In other words, between your Central Nervous System (CNS) and the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and is the key to Mind-Body Mastery.

When we are first establishing this connection, the body may go through cycles of trembling, spasms, and involuntary movements. These episodes can be safely experienced through Trauma Release Exercises (TRE) and Somatic Experiencing (SE). There are techniques out there that use awareness to establish an interoceptive connection such as Feldenkrais Method and Alexandra Technique. However, I am not here to show you some secret exercise you can do, that will solve all your problems. In my view, the exercise itself is irrelevant –  I’m here to help you build the best brain possible using quick, simple and effective techniques!

In the previous #buildyourbrain videos we have seen how to use breath to heighten HRV. Combine movement with breath and you have without fail, the most powerful technique for Mind-Body Mastery. In my Train your Nervous System Online Course, I use breath to relax the nervous system under threat and use tactical movement for stress inoculation and fear conditioning.

Some of the exercises include a partner and this is vital not only to enhance tactile sensitivity which is a large part of your interoceptive network but also to reinforce that the body does not lie – you may think you are relaxed but you will never know unless you receive direct feedback from a partner. You will learn that it’s really not about the exercise itself, but rather allowing the mind stepping out of the way and trust the body to do what it does best: which is to move.

When you first do the Train your Nervous System exercises, the relaxation induced may make you feel tired, sleepy or fatigued. This is because up until this point, your nervous system may not have experienced a true parasympathetic state. There are those who are incapable of functioning in this natural state of relaxation. They at least need a coffee to get going and hype and drama to keep going.

The great paradox is that the sympathetic state of fear is so familiar that our natural parasympathetic state of relaxation feels unsafe.

This Fear is a biological Lie!

We all remember a time when we were growing up where we needed an escape from home. Without a secure safety net, we may stumble upon destructive coping mechanisms, self medication with drugs and alcohol or if we are lucky, be rescued by a movement practice. This is when kids first discover a gateway to mental freedom, through dance, skateboarding, BMX, parkour, martial arts and other rebellious movement culture.

For me, it was Capoeira at the age of 19. Although this art form improved my physical strength, agility and flexibility, the reason I kept returning was because it allowed me to vent my emotional instability and aggression through song, dance and self-expression.

Capoeira however was far from the full mental health solution and I didn’t know how I’d cope if I stopped. This addiction to a physical practice has rescued many from a path of self-destruction and has created near-superhuman characters like Wim Hof and David Goggins.

At a certain point however your practice turns on you. The constant need to push and improve becomes corrosive on the body and does little to comfort the mind. Injuries begin to accumulate because we don’t know what is worst: to stop or keep going?

Like many on the path of self-discovery and Mind-Body Mastery, I dedicated my time in understanding different movement disciplines. After doing Capoeira for 8 years, I did yoga for 3 years straight and trained tactical movement patterns for the next 5 years.  Currently my movement training consists of a mixture of tactical movement, calisthenics and body building.

Regardless of what type of movement I do, one thing remains true –  my body is relaxed and this demonstrates the strength of connection between brain and body which has several flow on benefits:

  1. You are not needlessly pushing yourself using hype, motivation and training in ADHD mode.
  2. You don’t get fatigued as easily, sleep deeply and recover quickly.
  3. You don’t injury yourself because when you listen to your body: breath is your safety net.

My dedication to movement isn’t fuelled by aesthetics or social validation even though that is what I initially thought fitness was about, but rather a long-term commitment built on intrinsic reward – the ability to move itself is the benefit.

We can talk about neuroplasticity all day but it does little to rewire the brain – I want to leave you with a final power tip which is the key to learning. You may think, yes I joined the gym, did a yoga class, followed the keto trend but nothing is working. Think about how many strategies you have applied over the last 12 months then went straight back to emotional eating and watching comfort content?

The final power tip is to surround ourselves with a community to keep learning. It’s easy to lose motivation when repeating the same boring routine. I am constantly being introduced to new movement by being around people who move. The release of endorphins and BDNF facilitates the growth of new neural pathways and the heightened HRV ensures high level of cognitive flexibility and adaptability and let us not forget the most important part: FUN. Mind-Body Mastery is not about self-dominance. The ultimate act of self-dominance is to let it all go.

In order to learn something new, you have to let go of what you already know.

Unlike armchair academics who parrot out legacy text books yet are unable to read between the lines – science had no meaning to me until it gave me a language to communicate what meant something to me.

You can learn more about what movement means to me in my Cost of Captivity talk linked here and learn more about the #buildyourbrain series here.

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