Does Fitness Make Us Better Thinkers? (AKA How To Strike Up A Conversation Over A Beer With A Fitness Professional)

The Thinker: I bet he even lifts

Fitness, and all things pertaining to it, is a huge part of my life. It is my passion, my hobby, my career and my life’s work.
Have you ever seen someone quote themselves just two sentences after the act? Watch this:

“Fitness, and all pertaining to it…”
All pertaining to fitness. What is that?

Well, if you’re the layman or laywoman with no affiliation to any realm of fitness, you probably presume that most personal trainers, strength coaches and gym junkies care about nothing outside of their training and their next protein shake.
Actually, come to think about it, that’s probably a fair assumption for a significant chunk of personal trainers in the fit biz.
Well, I’m not speaking for them. I’m talking about the legitimate professionals in the field, those from whom I learn, teach, interact with and connect with online on a regular basis. The “good” fitpros tend to seek each other out. These are the people who are progressing our profession and improving its reputation.

So pertaining to fitness. Where does that take us? 

First, a walk back though time in fitness

Presumably, most think of fitness as an aesthetic oriented pursuit. Weight loss (fat loss) and muscle building, basically. Taking that to its furthest end, we get to competitive bodybuilding and figure shows.
But then there’s also fitness for function. Bear in mind, the fitness industry is the modern manifestation of what spawned from the Physical Culture movement of over a century ago (or a couple of millennia ago, if we attribute its origins to the Ancient Greeks, and even ancient Egypt and China.).

The Physical Culture archetype
The Physical Culture archetype

Physical Culture generally recognised aesthetics – or “form” – as a result of function, i.e. feats of strength. Performing feats of strength led to organised sporting events showcasing these expressions of force, power and technique in the form of strongman, power lifting and (Olympic) weightlifting.
(As a quick aside, each of the “form” and the “function” proponents had overlap, but also conflict, with weightlifting and bodybuilding taking distinctly separate paths – and regulation – through the middle of the twentieth century; power lifting gained more traction soon after.).

So we have bodybuilding and figure, strongman, weightlifting and power lifting competition.
Thanks largely to the “Father of modern strength & conditioning” Boyd Epley in the 1970’s, it wasn’t long until it was recognised that physical strength could (obviously) be an asset to almost any other competitive sport (rather than a hindrance as was a permeating belief at the time).
Strength and conditioning (S & C) is born and the age of the true professional athlete ensues.
With the growth of S & C coinciding with Arnold and Lou figuratively and physically dragging the spotlight onto bodybuilding, and Jane Fonda hip thrusting her way onto our television screens long before hip thrusting was actually considered legit, the public now wished to be bigger, faster and stronger; ripped and jacked; and thin and toned. Simultaneously.
Fitness instruction and Personal Training is born.

Lou & Arnold; Hulk and Conan.
Lou & Arnold. Hulk and Conan.

And Sports Science is born

So S & C now has all of us here fitness folk into sports. We watch our favourite teams and athletes not just as regular sports fans, but as ardent observers of human performance, and students of biomechanics and physiology. Hi, sports science.

A quest to turn man into machine
A quest to turn man into machine

Too, we watch these athletes – now equipped with both bigger bodies and bigger engines – crash and bash, sprint and cut, bend and twist, and jump and land (or fall) their way through the competitive season with more horsepower than they can handle.
Televised sports are a boom, athlete endorsements are a marketing company’s wet dream, and spending time on the sidelines injured is now both costly and unacceptable.

$$$
$$$

Physiotherapy and sports medicine, you may now take your place at the abundant and highly profitable fitness table.

Rehabilitation, “Injury prevention” and “Alternative” health care, too

Lest we forget our humble non-athlete fitness enthusiast who is now largely removed from manual work and chained to a computer desk in its stead. They’re ticking along just fine still holding hopes for achieving the magazine cover body (because shirtless and bikini-clad bodies are now a mainstay on said magazine covers).
Only now their back hurts. And their neck. And their knees…
For chiropractic, osteopathy, sports and remedial massage, ART, myotherapy, Rolfing, Feldenkrais, Bowen and Alexander among other soft tissue modalities and movement interventions, the path has now been paved.

Wait, so you're saying want to see some ACTUAL evidence...?
Wait, so you’re saying you want to see some actual evidence that this works…?

Nutrition: It’s kind of a big deal

Overlapping all aforementioned areas, at least to some extent, is of course nutrition.
Want to lose fat? Nutrition.
Build muscle? Nutrition.
Get stronger? Still, nutrition.
Run faster, jump higher, hit harder? See above.
Reduce chronic pain? Depending on who you talk to, still, quite possibly, nutrition.

Thank you, cheesy healthy nutrition image
Thank you, cheesy healthy nutrition image

And then of course there’s supplements, the shortcut to proper nutrition…we wished.

So far we’ve covered training – for both aesthetics and for performance – rehab and sports medicine, alternative health….stuff, and nutrition (which is a vast subject) with a hat tip to nutritional supplementation, as the major pies that any fitness professional worth their salt would typically be expected to have at least one finger in.
And if a trainer or coach did indeed have a decent knowledge of all of these, while excelling in one area in particular, they would likely be sitting in the top tier of their field (or, if the same was applied to the general fitness enthusiast, they’d be highly self-sufficient regarding all their fitness needs.).

But as both a means of complementing those skills and of personal interest, the rabbit hole goes much, much deeper for the typical fitness professional or enthusiast.

It’s not going to be a linear relationship from one category to the next from here on out, so these topics may at first seem random. Let’s go.

Cooking

Piggybacking on nutrition, cooking is an obvious and common extension for fitness people.
Not for me though. Cooking is a chore to me; I’m in it for the eating part (but I’m still a capable cook, and so should you be.).
For many others however, cooking is a hobby, a passion, and art, an event and even an area of serious study. There are many layers to cooking, and it encompasses ideas and skills that are uniquely human, and have been a prominent factor in our evolution as a species.
Fitness foodies abound. A quick scroll through Facebook will reveal literally thousands of pages all espousing the basic template of healthy but delicious recipes. Instagram was seemingly built for it.
Just because a fitness professional happens to know how much protein is in that steak, and how many carbs are in that chocolate ice cream, doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy eating the steak and ice cream!

Well I'll be buggered: they actually did steak and chocolate ice cream!
Well I’ll be buggered: they actually did steak and chocolate ice cream!

Stress

Whether a “wellness coach” at one end, a high level athletic preparation specialist at the other, or a personal trainer sitting somewhere in between, all who are worth paying any attention to will acknowledge the critical importance that understanding stress, and the management of stress, plays in their profession.
The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems; distress and eustress; catabolic and anabolic; work and recovery; all are the same basic dance between Yin and Yang and are fundamental elements not just to training, but to life.

Eustress vs. DistressRobert Sapolsky’s landmark book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers will likely be on the bookshelf of many coaches in fitness-related fields.
This importance and interest in the role of stress might lead an inquisitive fitness professional or fitness enthusiast down the path of harder science such as biology and/or biochemistry, or into business oriented applications such as productivity and time management. Or maybe into the study of meditation practices, which might lead one into something more specific like Yoga, or Tai Chi. Or it could take them somewhere more esoteric such as the study of Zen philosophy, the pursuit of “enlightenment”, or into religious territory, Buddhism or Taoism being common choices for those of such a mindset.

Personal Development

Paradoxically, because this topic is so broad and brings up the question of what personal development even means, I’ll keep it fairly brief. As a general observation, a high percentage of those who are heavily involved with fitness at some level, tend to be very much into personal development (okay, it’s PD from here on out) pursuits. Obviously this can be said for any population, however I’d speculate that this subject is given much more serious and deliberate thought by those that go out of their way to live physically healthy and active lives than it is by the couch-sitting, TV-watching, job-hating mediocre portion of society who live life as a grind.

In essence, PD entails anything that improves oneself, though it tends to be thought of as relating more to practices which encourage a conscious development of mental attributes: emotional states, relationship building, character analysis and, dare I say, “spiritual” awareness.
In actuality, all forms of training and fitness are an obvious act of PD – and arguably the most important – as it is developing yourself at a physical level which in turn will improve thinking (and many participants would counter that it is simultaneously working on the mental attributes, and serves as a genuine form of meditation).

Business, Marketing and Entrepreneurship

Doctor Google defines an entrepreneur as “someone who organises a business venture and assumes risk for it.”
Being that personal trainers are often self-employed, or if not, are thrust into a sink or swim environment of “find clients or go broke”, and strength coaches’ job security usually lie in the on-field success of their team, virtually everyone carving a career in the fitness industry is indeed an entrepreneur.
Owing to this, you can be sure that specifically targeted business coaching and mentorship is as prevalent in the fitness industry as much as any other, for better or worse as it may be.

Maybe try packing the neck. Oh, for success? Maybe try some professionalism with a little bit of competence.
Try packing the neck…
Oh, for business success? Maybe try some professionalism and a little bit of competence.

Too, many of the big names in business and marketing with recommended teachings are as commonplace in our industry as a just about any other, from old classics such as Napoleon Hill and Dale Carnegie, to modern day business and marketing heavy hitters such as Richard Branson, Seth Godin, Gary Vaynerchuck and Tim Ferriss. In fact, Ferriss’ career has been very much intertwined with the fitness industry, with his two most recent bestselling books The 4-Hour Body and The 4-Hour Chef including contributions from a few of the fitness industry’s own prolific names.

The fitness industry, as far as being a viable career goes, is still in its relative infancy and many are still attempting to cash in on this fact by spreading their amazing new ideas (which are rarely amazing and virtually never new). For this reason, this category is a critical element for any fitness professional (though in many cases, it is focused on far too much and almost exclusively, pouring more sizzle into the fitness industry, sans the steak).

Science

Again, this is a vast topic. Pick your sub-category, and there’s a fair chance we can make a fitness connection.
Biology is the study of life and living organisms, and is an umbrella term for many further branches of biology.
Just going through a few of those we can see plenty of fields that have implications on training and nutrition – anatomy, biomechanics, genetics, neurobiology and physiology being some of the more obvious relations to training, and then even more could easily be linked with nutrition, such as agriculture, biochemistry, epidemiology, epigenetics, evolutionary biology, palaeontology, pathology, pharmacology, and even another not listed there, but toxicology too (especially if one were to take a leaf out of Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile and the concept of “mithridatisation”, or hormesis).
It’s easy to see that from these areas, many fitness folk can draw connections, whether simply through anatomy and biomechanics for the aspiring bodybuilder or strength athlete; agriculture, evolutionary biology and palaeontology for many of the ancestral eating/health advocates; epidemiology for a more general overview of nutritional trends (and the origin of much crappy research) right down to pharmacology and pathology for many people investigating into – often their own – autoimmune disorders and health problems (whether genuine or perceived).
Hypochondriac

Each of these topics can run very, very deep.
It is from this scientific mindset that we can appreciate the need for an understanding of research, something a lot of top level fitness people will have a reasonable understanding of.
From here we’ve seen a healthy new trend in the shunning of pseudoscience, the respect for logical arguments, and the refreshing popularity of pursuing the title of an “evidence-based practitioner”.

Combat Sports and Martial Arts

I honestly don’t understand how anyone can think that Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and its premier organisation – the UFC – isn’t an amazing sport. I grew up a typical Aussie country boy playing footy and cricket, and still enjoy my Australian Rules Football (AFL), and still loosely follow but have a waning interest in cricket, thanks to its saturation in recent years.
But I watch every major UFC event and soak up all the pre and post-fight coverage like I’m ten years old following my AFL team again. It is an amazing, pure, and flat out entertaining sport.
Not to give a full historical recount of MMA, but the UFC was originally created to answer the age old question of the fighting arts: Who’d win a fight between a boxer and a wrestler? A karate guy and a Muay Thai fighter? Sumo vs. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu? In 1993, we got our answers.
Over the next decade the sport evolved into modern day MMA, as fighters realised that to be the best, they’d need to drop their dogmatic beliefs about their preferred fighting style, recognise the strengths and benefits of others, and embrace – and train – the best parts of them all (sounds a lot like the fitness industry, right?).
The decade or so since has seen MMA evolve into a genuine profession, making worldwide superstars out of title holders and fan favourites.

"Are you not entertained?!"
“Are you not entertained?!”

In fitness circles, MMA is extremely popular. And I can see so many reasons as to why.
First, there’s the obvious attributes of fitness on display. While the mostly hypothetical argument of which sport has the fittest athletes in the world is a rather fruitless one, it’d be hard to make a compelling case against MMA being right at the pointy end. Strength, speed and power are not only required to be at a high absolute level, but even more impressively, at a high endurance level. Combined with the physical punishment absorbed (while the head shots are obvious, what many casual observers fail to recognise is the extent to which the body shots and leg kicks rapidly deplete a fighter’s physical capacities) professional MMA fighters are some seriously impressive physical specimens.

Another facet to the fight game is the primal element of it all, an element of particular appeal to those who like to look back into our caveman ancestry and evolution. As UFC president Dana White has often said, “Long before anyone ever threw a ball or swung a bat, a guy punched another guy, and everyone else gathered around to watch.”
For those that can look past any false attributions and connections that combat sports have of being “barbaric” or acts of violence – the type one may be unfortunate enough to witness or, worse, fall victim to, on a Saturday night out when exposed to the minority scum of society – what is recognised is a yearning to test one’s mettle, to discover and push oneself to the physical limits of the human body’s capabilities. This is never more evident than the moments immediately following a gruelling, bloody war inside the cage, when the combatants cease fighting, smile with elation, hug, congratulate and thank each other for the opportunity, and hold their hands up to embrace the adulation of the fans, momentarily concerned with neither the fight result nor their wounds.
All of this seems to be recognised and appreciated by fitness folk as much, if not more, than any other population.

Everybody wants to be a MMA fighter, but don't nobody wanna get punched in the face.
Everybody wants to be a MMA fighter, but don’t nobody wanna get punched in the face.

Sports

The easy one. While sport in its many forms permeates many areas of society, fitness is an element possessed in almost all of them, and usually at a high level. While everyone can appreciate the athleticism on display, fitness folk have an edge in appreciation simply through an increased level of experience and, in particular, the fitness professionals who not only assess their own level of fitness, but usually that of many others too, and thus can also appreciate the rarity of a truly world class athlete.
AthletesConversely, and just an observation, I’ve found that it is often those that pursue purely aesthetic goals, such as bodybuilders, oftentimes have a background absent of any other athletic pursuits. Whether this is some type of correlation between being unathletic as a youth, and feeling the need to make up for it via physical appearance later in life, I can only speculate. But I wouldn’t be surprised; the Fat to Fit story is quite the common one.

Atheism

Obviously this may be considered a controversial topic to some, and perhaps to the extent that many would question as to why I even bring it up. To state my stance and bias from the outset here, I’m a thoughtful atheist/agnostic (or my preferred term that I’ve taken from Richard Dawkins, a “de facto atheist”). And while I’m by no means an activist on the matter, as I really don’t care too much what anyone wishes to believe, I also don’t believe that discussion on the subject should be considered taboo.

Based on my suspicions, I ran a small scale poll on social media over a couple of Facebook groups, one of which is specifically designed for fitness professionals (a group I admin myself) and another open to both fitpros and fitness enthusiasts, both of which are well monitored for spam and include largely active members primarily from but not limited to Australia, North America, Great Britain and Europe.
Worded in what I thought was a way to create a clear dichotomy of a Yay or a Nay for believing in god, I still managed to receive a handful of “other” votes, which don’t really do anything to help my stats. Still, serving as at least some form of research among this specific demographic, the poll results were such:

  • Atheist/Agnostic/Non-Religious/Unbeliever/There is no god:  57.5%
  • Theist/Religious/Of Faith/Believer/There is a god:  28.8%
  • “Other”:  13/7%

Finding exact statistics on Theism vs. Atheism, or Religion vs. Irreligion (I’m just going to say atheist and religious from now on, you get the drift) is nigh on impossible. However, turning to the holy grail (pun intended) of all things Internet science, Wikipedia, here you can choose for yourself.
Obviously the percentages vary greatly from nation to nation, and the U.S. being known for having a particularly large Christian population were fairly well represented in the survey, but we could make a case for worldwide atheism ranging anywhere from single figure percentages, to as high as 40%. However, as an overall average, to attribute much more than 20% of the population to atheism would be very generous, with somewhere in the teen percentages looking to be most plausible.
From this, and as per my suspicion, we can suggest the atheist population of people heavily involved in fitness is disproportionately high. I have a couple of theories for this finding.

As noted earlier, science, as an umbrella term for its many sub-categories, is inextricably linked with fitness. And while science is also often regarded as an enemy of religion (it isn’t, science is simply a process, it doesn’t take sides) it certainly hasn’t done a lot to help religion’s case, being based on evidence as it is.
It would not surprise me at all to find that those who rely on science to guide their health and fitness pursuits might also recognise the disconnect between the pragmatism of science, and the idealism of religion.

Another less tangible angle on this idea, is that perhaps those who actively participate in fitness as a means of taking control of their health and, by extension, their lives, are less inclined to look outside of themselves for support, for a sense of purpose, or for an escape.
Of course, there is absolutely no evidence for this that I could ever provide. This is just an idea, my idea. But I don’t believe it’s drawing too long a bow by suggesting that somebody who finds a sense of discipline and structure in one very tangible area of their life, is less likely to take on another, far less tangible, discipline.

And for all this talk of religion amidst an article on fitness and nutrition, the irony of suggesting fitness is any less religious is not lost on me. Particularly from the inner sanctum, our industry is well recognised for its own secular cults and dogmatic followers (CrossFit or Paleo, anyone?!). Perhaps after all, it’s less a case of opting out of a personal deity, and taking up arms with a fanatical fitness religion in its stead…

Sex

This could also run pretty deep, but I’m opting for the superficiality angle instead.
Fit people are more likely to have a positive body image (though I will acknowledge that this industry also produces its fair share of personalities with eating disorders and/or body dysmorphia, but those are still the rank minority). This can lead to a sexual confidence that rises above any conservatism regarding sex, including conversation of it.
Thus, I postulate that people involved in a fit and healthy lifestyle are more likely to engage in open and free flowing conversation about sex and sexual content with others, as well as think more liberally about it themselves, thereby progressing their own sexual skillset more rapidly than those who shy away from the topic, and in turn lead healthier, more satisfying sex lives. And keep the lights on.
Do not ask for me for any peer reviewed research on this subject.

But I do NOT condone breeding between CrossFit couples! What are they gonna do, have kipping sex?
But I do NOT condone breeding between CrossFit couples!
What are they gonna do, have kipping sex? Entertain their kids with “Pukie the Clown”?!

Thinking

And finally, on to the literality of thinking itself.
The major theme of Dr. John Ratey’s book Spark was the positive effects of exercise on neuroplasticity (learning and cognitive function, really) thanks in large part to Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF).
While Ratey’s work was limited to aerobic exercise, other studies suggest that there is a relationship between exercise intensity and BDNF levels[1], which positively affects several areas of the brain that are responsible for learning, memory, and higher thinking[2].
There are positive implications for fitness in people suffering depression through this mechanism too, as increased exposure to stress has been shown to decrease BDNF expression leading to atrophy of the hippocampus. But even under significantly stressful conditions, as well as in a state of metabolic dysfunction, BDNF levels are shown to increase with exercise[3].

A scientific illustration of how BDNF works
A scientific illustration of how BDNF works

So BDNF is some pretty good gear. Steroids for your brain, pretty much. I’d highly recommend getting on it, and exercise is your ticket.

What does all this mean, for fitness people and non-fitness people alike?

Probably not much. And obviously this is an incredibly biased, simplified, and speculative list, and far from an exhaustive one.
But next time you’re out at a bar and strike up a conversation with one of these fitness people, consider that they’d probably much rather talk science than about their biceps, and entrepreneurship instead of protein shakes.
Or, you know, if fitness is lacking in your life, perhaps a forthright discussion about sex or religion is a little too much for you to handle, especially if your typical conversation revolves around telling me how much your job sucks, how crappy the weather is, how drunk you got last weekend, again, or whatever other mundane pastime serves as your standard verbal exchange.
As you can see, a lot of things are related to a lot of other things. And fitness can play the centrepiece to many of them. For at its core, fitness is nothing more than self-improvement. And in my humble opinion, as far as self-improvement goes, fitness is the most important of all.

References:

[1] Ferris LT, Williams JS, Shen CL. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007 Apr;39(4):728-34 “The effect of acute exercise on serum brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels and cognitive function.”
[2] Yamada K, Nabeshima T (April 2003). "Brain-derived neurotrophic factor/TrkB signaling in memory processes". J. Pharmacol. Sci. 91 (4): 267–70.
[3] Patrick S. Murray, Phillip V. Holmes International Journal of  Peptides Volume 2011 (2011), Article ID 654085 “An Overview of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor and Implications for Excitotoxic Vulnerability in the Hippocampus.


Thoughts, questions, hate mail, or anything I missed? Feel free to drop a comment below.
And of course, sharing this article will naturally help you jump the queue in your wait for karmic justice to start paying out.

10 thoughts on “Does Fitness Make Us Better Thinkers? (AKA How To Strike Up A Conversation Over A Beer With A Fitness Professional)”

  1. Awesome article! Thanks. As a personal trainer and naturopath I can completely relate to the journey of fitness that your describe. Best industry to be part of! Transforming people’s lives!

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