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PsychNotes • Natural Selection Can Jump in a Lake

We’re approaching binge-eating season. It seems natural selection has saddled us with a powerful hankerin’ to bulk up for the winter. There was a time when a little extra weight helped us live longer, and science has shown that being not-dead makes it easier to pass on DNA. Hence, DNA tells us to store extra fat for what it thinks will be lean times.

But as Steven Pinker said, “my genes can go jump in a lake.” You are free to disobey your DNA if it is telling you to snuggle up with a Cinnabon for the next six months. Here are some compelling, brain-related reasons to burn calories rather than store them this fall.

1. Shiny New Neurons
Dr. Wendy Suzuki says the cerebral cortexes of rats who exercise are thicker than those who don’t. Exercise improves the ability to encode new memories, it encourages new neuron growth, and it gives your rodent’s hippocampus a healthy glow. The message is clear: if you want a thin waist and a thick cortex, get your rats to the gym.

2. Protection for a Lifetime
Insulin resistance is correlated with dementia, and exercise is inversely correlated to insulin resistance. In other words, physical activity appears to offer protection against age-related dementia. It also appears to reduce damaging glutamate buildup associated with some neurodegenerative diseases.

3. Stay Sharp for Life
From my hometown paper… age doesn’t need to mean athletic decline. Your brain will keep your skills and reflexes sharp if you keep practicing throughout your life. “Inactivity was a much stronger predictor of functional limitations than either chronic disease or being socially unengaged with life.”

4. Bendy Body Therapy
I’ve long preached that exercise is usually better than antidepressants and anxiolytics, and the side effects are wonderful. I love it when a good randomized trial agrees with me. This one gives evidence that yoga can be effective intervention for depression, and it’s more approachable than other forms of exercise. That’s important because depression tends to steal people’s initiative.

5. Ignore that Shame
This clip of Danica Patrick doing inverted pushups might make you feel inspired, or it might make you feel hopeless. I can’t even do a regular pushup, and she’s doing them with her feet in the air. I routinely meet people who want to exercise, but they don’t want to exercise next to someone like her. If that’s you, feel free to ignore your mind along with your DNA.

I like Seth Godin’s no-pressure approach: “If you want to get in shape, go to the gym every single day, change your clothes and take a shower. If you can do that for a month, pretty soon you’ll start doing something while you’re there.”

There’s wisdom in that, even if it is tongue-in-cheek. Get your body moving and your brain will follow.

The Tactical Guide to WomenIt’s been a while since I’ve posted PsychNotes because I’ve been working on this little project, but now that’s done. I enjoy researching and writing these, so we’ll see if I can stick with them for the winter 🙂 Right now, I’m off to the gym.