Brains, the Benefits of Exercise, Breathing and BCAA’s; Part 2 of the series: A-Z Fitness and Exercise

Brains, the Benefits of Exercise, Breathing and BCAA’s; Part 2 of the series: A-Z Fitness and Exercise

Starting at the top of our head the entirety of our body can benefit from exercise. Our hair can benefit from exercise all the way down to the toes. A good way to remember that exercise helps all of the body is the old nursery rhyme/ song describing the human form: “head shoulders knees and toes knees and toes, eyes and ears and mouth and nose, head shoulders knees and toes knees and toes”. Or maybe a more modern phrase: it’s all good.


Exercise is dependent on proper form for it to be maximally helpful: proper form drastically reduces risk of injury, and it maximizes fitness gains. Proper form starts in the brain. It is not all in our heads of course, we are going to have to move the body. Just the way we think about our bodies can have a drastic impact on how it moves. We knew this already, I did not need me to tell you this: think about the last time you emotionally felt like crap: I bet you were also physically sluggish and even noticeably weaker. Of course you can also build yourself up mentally and perform better physically.

The truth is we don’t really know the full extent of the amazing effects the brain has on fitness: it has been shown that accident victims can begin the recovery process using visualization alone, meaning no movement. There is a 5-25% improvement in fitness gains amongst people who use daily visualization exercises. The best way to describe this is, pretend time: pretend you can run faster, pretend you have bigger muscles, less fat, can reach a little farther into the stretch… as it turns out pretending is important and helpful. (I find the best way to do this is in front of a mirror in the morning, if you keep your entire pretending experience positive you can get a great start on the day).

Gradually, exercise will increase the neural muscular response system. Much of the strength gains in the first month or two of an exercise program can actually be attributed to improved communication between the brain and the muscles. Exercise stimulates the growth and repair of nerve cells, and some current animal research is showing it can stimulate the growth of STEM CELLS. (Which is freaking amazing, I hope this ends up to prove true in humans as well). Due to exercise; in addition to hormonal changes which positively affect the brain, exercise physically “works-out” our nervous system. Whenever we move we need our nervous system and our brain to do so, thusly exercise is a workout for the brain as well.

Many people, myself included, use exercise like a wonder drug. When I am sad, I go for a run or even a walk. I like to weight lift or do push-ups when I am angry. I like to sprint when I am over excited. I like yoga or Tai chi when I am anxious. Always, every time, without fail: when I exercise I feel better. Exercise is the best mood booster I have ever found, and it is 100 percent natural and it is very good for us. (Try to avoid overtraining, if you do decide to medicate with exercise. Walking as in the old phrase “take a walk” or “walk it off” is a great way to do both avoid overtraining and enhance the mood.)

Technically exercise is not a drug, but in some ways it should be treated like a drug: just as some drugs react badly with other drugs some drugs react badly with exercise. The two should not always be mixed, only if a doctor or physical therapist has prescribed a drug to you and they have said it is okay to exercise should you assume it is okay. Mild exercise is usually safe to do while on medications. Stimulants raise the heart rate: moderate to intense exercise raises the heart rate. Some drugs raise blood pressure: exercise temporarily raises blood pressure intense exercise can temporarily intensely raise blood pressure (in the long run, exercise lowers blood pressure). Drugs can cause dehydration and exercise can… you guessed it make you sweat causing dehydration if we’re not careful. Be careful when mixing drugs and exercise even if your doctor did give you the go ahead.          

Considering it’s affect on the mood it should come as no surprise that proper form of any exercise is dependent on the brain. Developing proper form always requires a degree of focus and attentiveness. When we reach the moment that you develop proper form, it can be felt. This is often touted as a finding of inner peace or a Zen moment; some will even call it getting closer to God. If these moments provide you with that much bliss don’t let the fact that they can be scientifically explained ruin the fun. When this happens, we are feeling what it is like to learn something: notice that when we learn something that we find interesting we are compelled to smile or at very least it makes us feel good. When we learn an exercise’s proper form it involves many parts of the brain and the body so the feel good from learning feeling is intensified.

The dopamine system is actually intended to be used for reward driven learning. Unfortunately, the dopamine system is often abused by addicts of all types: food addicts, gamblers, alcoholics, drug addicts, anger addicts… anything that can be an addiction: will most likely use the body’s dopamine system. The chemical dopamine is generally intended to make us feel good. It has a ton of functions including being a biological precursor for adrenaline and noradrenaline (epinephrine and norepinephrine). The body needs the amino acid Tyrosine to make dopamine.  Dopamine helps us learn, it helps us feel good and it functions as a natural pain killer.


Drugs (including excessive alcohol) mess with the dopamine system and they can do some serious damage, especially in addicts. Exercise addictions and most addictions for that matter trigger natural hormonal responses in the body: typically with a natural dopamine release it will shortly be followed by a serotonin release. (EXERCISE ADDICTION is typically a GOOD thing, but you can overdo it and hurt yourself, so be careful.) These two hormones function as a yin and yang and they counter balance each other. Natural hormonal responses 99,999 out of 100,000 are good for us in some way or at very least do no notable damage.

The hormonal responses triggered by drugs hurt us in a very serious and complicated way. Ethically I should note that many drugs, even drugs typically considered “street drugs,” can be used in a safe medicinal way. As a good rule of thumb: if your doctor prescribed it, you seem to be having no side effects and you are following his/her recommended dosing chances are you are fine. NEVER EVER NEVER I repeat never, abuse prescription drugs you think street drugs are bad my Lord Jesus, Father in Heaven, PRESCRIPTION drug abuse is really bad.

The dopamine system is fairly complicated, in the brain there are four major dopamine pathways: Mesolimbic, Mesocortical, nigrostriatal, tuberinfundibular and a number of minor dopamine pathways including incertohypothalamic. These pathways are associated with a ton of different things that the body does; the incertohypothalamic is associated with sexual function. It turns out that most of the problems associated with drug addiction can be explained by malfunctions of these dopamine pathways. Many disorders and diseases are associated with or can be caused by dopamine pathway malfunction including everything from erectile dysfunction, schizophrenia and even Parkinson’s disease.



I will talk more about over-training in later articles, but overtraining can cause all of the negative side effects that drug abuse can. Over-training can cause: tiredness, weakness, lack of energy, lack of physical progress, loss of appetite, constant aching, depression and other mood problems. Most exercisers will NEVER experience overtraining. If you work out without giving your body sufficient time to rest and heal between workouts: YOU ARE ASKING TO EXPERIENCE THESE HORRIBLE SYMPTOMS OF OVERTRAINING. Rest between workout is important, very few (although it is actually possible) are actually able to work out every day without eventually experiencing overtraining.

Truthfully exercise addition and overtraining are not something to fear, but it is important to be aware that exercise can become an addiction. Typically however exercise does not become a true addiction and it can be used in the treatment of addiction. Many addicts will find exercise to be crucial in their recover process. Exercise helping with addiction is one of the many benefits of exercise.

Exercise as long as you don’t overdo it is great

The Benefits of Exercise:

  1. 1.       Exercise improves the mood, and has a ton of psychological benefits.
  2. 2.       Exercise boosts energy and endurance, it sounds false but its true exercise makes everything run a bit more efficiently thus boosting energy.
  3. 3.       Regulates blood pressure, often better then drugs will or can (as in lowers high blood pressure and raises low blood pressure).
  4. 4.       Regulates and/or lowers heart rate, a sign of improved heart health.
  5. 5.       It lowers LDL “bad” cholesterol, and raises HDL “good” cholesterol
  6. 6.       Promotes better sleep
  7. 7.       Improves bone density, as well as muscular and connective tissue strength.
  8. 8.       Helps regulate blood sugar, and can even be part of a diabetes treatment plan.
  9. 9.       Helps fight obesity: after exercise is done burning calories the positive changes in the metabolism and increased muscle mass continue to help fight obesity.
  10. 10.   Helps with or helps prevent nearly all diseases from cancer and heart disease to chronic depression and erectile dysfunction. Chances are if you have a medical issue it CAN and WILL help you, talk to your doctor.

EXERICISE IS AMAZING and there is more benefits to it then could possibly be listed.


Breathing properly is an important part of proper form. It should come as no surprise that exercise increases lung capacity, but (typically) breathing needs to be deep for the improvement to be significant. Indeed we do not have to go on a hard run to stimulate deep breathing, it’s easy to just breathe in deeply while sitting here and reading this. Doing this is EXERCISE. If we breathe deeply in a purposeful manner, it is a breathing exercise and over time it increases our lung capacity. Trust me; no doctor is going to expect a patient who broke a rib to go on a hard run to increase/restore the patient’s lung capacity. Doctors will prescribe various apparatuses and recommend breathing exercises that can be done with these devices (these devices are not really needed but they do help).

There are as many different breathing exercises as there are types of exercises because when done properly all exercise is also a breathing exercise. The obvious breathing exercises that are regular exercise are cardio vascular workouts which get us breathing hard like running and most sports. Breathing exercises which expand our lungs abilities are not just breathing hard cardio, exercise as mild as walking can help the lungs, as long as one thing is remembered: breathe purposefully. In fact you can improve lung strength and ability simply doing breathing exercises.

There are a ton of different breathing exercises; a quick internet search will reveal dozens of useful ones. Not all breathing exercises are deep breathing; those that are not tend to be huffy-puffy in nature (quick short in-out breathing), these exercises are good too. Experiment with what is comfortable for you. It might be surprising but a breathing exercise meant for band geeks and their trumpets (I played trumpet for a while) WILL help basketball players with their game.

As a personal trainer, I often find myself helping people with weight lifting, and proper breathing is extremely important: Thus…

BREATH DAMMIT, A quick guide to breathing while weight lifting.

  1. 1.       Take a few good deep breaths before a set, to create an oxygen surplus (there is no need to do this till you feel light headed, just take a few breaths). If you forget everything else remember this first step.
  2. 2.       Exhale in a manner that is comfortable for you during the “positive” phase, also known as the harder part.  (For the squat the positive is part where one stands up, for a row the positive is the part where we pull towards ourselves, for a Bench press the positive part is the part where we push away.)
  3. 3.       Inhale after the middle or “finish” position during the “negative” phase, also known as the less hard part. For example with the Bench Press the negative phase is the lowering towards your chest phase. (You can inhale during the middle portion, especially if you are doing an isometric hold before the negative.)
  4. 4.       During the lifting, inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. It is perfectly fine, and sometimes beneficial to “puff” when you exhale (let out air in bursts).

Holding our breath shoots our blood pressure through the roof regardless of what we are doing. If you hold your breath long enough you will start to hear your heart beat no matter how loud your surroundings are… if this happens to you for God’s sake breathe. The good news is it is actually difficult to suffer brain damage as a result of holding your breath; it does not typically kill brain cells. For brain cells to start dying they have to be without oxygen for 3-5 minutes. What should happen when you hold your breath is you will hold your breath, then you will PASS OUT and your body will automatically start breathing again (this can be deadly if it happens underwater or on a weight bench).


We all know that we can fail to get enough oxygen, but many of us fail to realize we can get to much. Most of us have heard the word hyperventilation, but for one reason or another most people that I work with half refuse to believe that it is real. You can breathe TOO MUCH.  Hyperventilation leads to excessive expulsion of circulating carbon dioxide, this raises blood pH and reduces the availability of oxygen to the brain. The body is very complicated and we need some circulating CO2. It turns out that hyperventilation can cause most of the problems that hypoventilation (not getting enough air) can: numbness, lightheadedness, head ache, dizziness, nervous laughter, and even fainting. Hyperventilation is perhaps best known for causing panic attacks; it is possible for us to huff and puff our way into a panic attack.

It is actually not uncommon for women in labor to accidentally give themselves panic attacks because of hyperventilation. Birth of a child is (at least usually is) intense exercise and like all intense exercise form is extremely important. Don’t go lamas breathing exercises crazy, because hyperventilation is bad.

Valsalva Maneuvers (named after the doctor who invented it in 17th century):

                Chances are you have never heard of this, but you have done it. If you were ever taught to “pop” the ears by forcefully trying to exhale while holding your mouth and nose closed: you have done a Valsalva maneuver. When popping the ears with a valsalva maneuver there is a danger of auditory damage due to over pressurization of the middle ear. It is much safer to “pop” your ears (open your Eustachian tubes) with repeated swallowing or yawning. Divers need to research the dangers of repeated use of the Valsalva maneuver. For divers and even doctors or patients it can be very helpful at times, there are medical reasons that a doctor might ask you to do a Valsalva maneuver. It is always important to know what we are doing BEFORE we do it.

Valsalva maneuvers are something that power lifters will do to increase the amount they can lift. Doing this has it dangers, and it is often a topic of debate if it should be allowed. Many competitions will “red flag” your lift if they catch you using a valsalva maneuver. There is more than one way to do the maneuver, and if you see someone trying extremely hard to hold in their breath and they have puffed up cheeks chances are they never learned how to do it properly. A proper valsalva maneuver is hard to detect as it involves blocking off the glottis (opening above the vocal chords) with the epiglottis (the flap that protects you from choking when you swallow food). I have done a proper valsalva maneuver while lifting heavy and I will tell you it is not comfortable, it will leave you light headed and dizzy, and usually it leaves me with a desire to vomit. These things are uncomfortable to do while weight lifting, and the chance of fainting, vomiting or falling over is very high.

On a lighter note:

BCAA’s are kinda awesome

It is true that supplementing with amino acids is completely unnecessary; you do not need to buy BCAA’s. If you are getting enough protein you are just fine, and you do not need BCAA’s at all for any reason, but it might be very cool to get them.  

BCAA or branched chain amino acids, they kinda are like what they sound like they are like: they are amino acids that have aliphatic (carbon atoms bonded to more than two other carbon atoms) side chains with a branch. There are three BCAA’s leucine, isoleucine and valine, all three are essential amino acids meaning the body cannot make them. These things are a big deal accounting for roughly 1/3 of the amino acids in muscle proteins. They are used to expedite the healing of burn victims; and many body builders use them to expedite the healing after a hard workout.

I have used BCAA’s and I have to say they do work (I used a sensible amount). I experienced less delayed onset muscle soreness, and I was ready to train hard again about a day sooner. For the money I prefer L-glutamine supplementation but BCAAs are still pretty darn impressive. (I will write about L-glut in future articles).

THERE IS A DANGER TO OVER USE and it has a very un-fun name:

Maple Syrup Urine Disease (that is the real name)

LOL – Laugh Out Loud

                Anyway Maple syrup urine disease is caused by a lack of Branched- Chain Alpha-Keto Acid Dehydrogenase complex (a combination of enzymes that breakdown BCAA’s). Really you only have to be short with one of the enzymes.

This horrible disease is often suffered by infants (another example of why formula should be avoided if possible).     

This disease is characterized by sweet smelling urine, and is caused by toxic by-products of BCAA’s. If this disease is left untreated it can cause severe brain damage and eventual death. Symptoms are: vomiting, poor eating/ lack of hunger, dehydration, laziness, loss of muscle tone (hypotonia), seizures, ketoacidosis, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar),pancreatitis, coma, never issues and opisthotonus which is a terrifying spasm of the back google it, it is freaky.

Don’t get me wrong BCAA’s work and they work well, but don’t over-do it. I have seen and heard about what I would consider horrors when it comes to BCAA’s. BCAA’s are often marketed as calorie free protein, thus people treat it like it is a simple protein powder: DON’T DO THIS. Anything over 10-15 grams is usually considered excessive. I will use 5 grams added to a protein shake and this seems to work real good.

Happy Exercising and make sure not to over-do it, Drugs are bad, and BREATHE DAMMIT


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