Building Better Brains: Why Exercise Beats Physical Labor


Holiday Workout with the Kids

  • So I was exercising with my kids, burning off the extra calories from holiday eating, when I spotted a teachable moment…
  • “You know,” I told them, “exercise is good for your brain, not just your muscles.”
  • My family is used to me droning on about the brain, and my children patiently endured.
  • I explained what they’ve already heard hundreds of times: That the brain has an amazing ability to recover and reconfigure, depending on the stresses it’s put under.
  • I was proud that they already knew that brains make their own stem cells, allowing for recovery and growth over time.
  • So as I went on to describe the way that our brains form new memories and are nourished by the effects of exercise.
  • But I struggled to answer my son’s question, “Does labor work just as well as exercise?”

Creating New Brain

  • I thought was a brilliant question for a teenager to be asking, and at first I thought it was an easy answer.
  • “Of course not,” I told him, because that’s what I’ve been telling my patients for years.
  • You see, I get into this discussion all the time, because I’m constantly telling my patients that they need to be exercising.
  • The evidence is powerful!
  • People with Alzheimer Disease who start walking for exercise improve their memory.
  • Patients recovering from stroke who exercise can recover lost functions.
  • I am amazed on a daily basis by how much benefit the brain receives from exercise.

But I don’t see the same results from labor.

  • Yet people in general seem to try to equate physical labor with exercise.
  • Here’s how the exchange goes:
  • Me:  “Ok, Mr. Smith, let’s get you started on an exercise regimen.”
  • Mr. Smith:  “Groan…do I really have to?”
  • Me: “Well, it would really help to improve the way your brain works.”
  • Mr. Smith: “But you know, doc, I’m very active, I walk around the office all day.  And I’m in the garden a couple times a week lifting bags of soil.”
  • Me: “Well, I guess that’s better than sitting and watching TV…”

Certainly, it’s good to be active.

  • Being productive and doing things is good for the mind.
  • It sets into motion a series of processes that help your mood and circulation.
  • And it’s much better for you than having a sedentary lifestyle.
  • In fact, if I could just get some of my patients to the place of being active I would be very pleased.

But the truth is that physical labor is not the same as exercise

  • If you want a truly healthy and optimized brain, you have to do more.
  • If you want to increase your productivity, you have to do more.
  • If you want to extend the longevity of your brain, you have to do more.
  • Labor is not enough.  People don’t get the same function
  • But for the longest time, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why brick-laying was not the same as bench-pressing.

And then it dawned on me…it’s a matter of mindset!

  • Movement during physical labor is done with the mindset of saving energy…
  • …while movement during exercise is all about spending energy.

When you are performing labor…

  • It is from the perspective of trying to conserve energy.
  • You are trying to meet a goal of productivity, to garner resources, to accomplish a task.
  • And the mindset is to do that with as little energy expenditure as possible.
  • A caveman or early farmer would do the absolute minimum to get along.
  • They wouldn’t go into the wild and kill a wooly mammoth, only to turn around and do hot yoga for an hour!
  • They needed to conserve their energy at all costs, because of the harsh environment.
  • But today, we have fast food and an abundance of calories.
  • So getting the food is more of a result of our work.
  • And the work is what brings home the bacon.
  • So physical labor is often done from the constrained place of anxiety, scarcity, and competition.

When you are exercising…

  • You go into it with the mindset of using energy.
  • Your goal is to strengthen your muscles, bones and heart.
  • Rather than trying to compete with others for resources, you are competing with yourself to improve yourself.
  • Exercise is done from the open place of courage, confidence, abundance and collaboration.

The brain turns on different circuits depending on your mindset.

  • Anxiety
  • Wariness
  • Fatigue
  • Stress hormone production
  • Scarcity
  • Mindless repetition
  • Memory erosion


  • Confidence
  • Openness
  • Endurance
  • Stress hormone reduction
  • Abundance
  • Creative expansion
  • Memory enhancement

So now more than ever, as we get ready to work off the holiday calories, remember than your MINDSET will make a huge difference for your brain function.
Develop the intentionality of exercise, even when you’re doing physical labor, and reap the gains in Optimizing Your Brain!


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