5 Mental Strategies That Bring You Closer to Your Fitness Goals, According to a Neuroscientist and U.S. Army Athlete

Photo: Getty Images/Delmaine Donson
We all know by now that the mind and body are inextricably intertwined. This idea, often dubbed “the mind-body connection,” can pertain to virtually every facet of the human experience. My guts, for example, churn when I’m jet-lagged—a physical response to a derailed circadian rhythm. Research also shows that immune function, though biological in nature, can suffer with prolonged mental stress.

But the mind-body symbiosis can prove extremely positive, too. According to neuroscientist Allison Brager, an athlete on the U.S. Army Warrior Fitness team and author of Meathead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain, athletic performance—as well as the motivation to work up a sweat in the first place—is greatly intertwined with neurological factors. And these factors can be hacked, so to speak.

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Dr. Brager, who calls the nervous system “a beautiful thing,” has studied its role in movement, motivation, and athletic performance—specifically in elite power athletes. Interestingly, “the brain of an athlete is unique,” she shares. “Research shows that a brain scan alone could determine who is an elite athlete versus who is an amateur athlete.”

"A brain scan alone could determine who is an elite athlete versus who is an amateur athlete." —Neuroscientist Allison Brager

The logical followup question: Are elite athletes’ atypical brain scans a reflection of inherent genetic factors? Or, are the anomalies due to their behaviors, like consistent training?

According to Dr. Brager, “it's a balance of nature and nurture.” Some advantages are genetic, like 20/20 vision and augmented hand-eye coordination. “Those born into a family of athletes and gifted with select athletic genes have a distinct advantage.”

That said, anyone’s brain can be trained, to a certain degree, to more closely mimic that of an elite athlete.  “With training, more efficient movement patterns and [brain] connections develop,” Dr. Brager says. Whether you’re an aspiring athlete or a couch potato with good intentions, the following “brain tricks” may bring you a few steps—nay, strides—closer to your fitness goals.

Brain trick #1: Tap into muscle memory

The more you exercise, the fitter you become; the fitter you become, the less physically tiring exercise feels. Another lesser-known benefit of repetition, however, is what Dr. Brager calls muscle memory.

Unlike the physical strengthening of your muscles, muscle memory is neurological. “The concept of muscle memory is that the more you practice something, the more second nature it becomes due to strengthening the connections between the central and peripheral nervous systems,” Dr. Brager explains. “This is the neurological explanation for the 10,000-hour expert rule,” she says.

Plus, “the more experience you have, the…less energy [the brain] requires to initiate movement and receive information.” In short, practice makes perfect, as the old adage goes—on both a physical and neurological level.

Brain trick #2: Adopt a “no-fail” mindset

There’s a reason why star athletes, fitness instructors, and even sportswear marketing slogans ooze a “failure-is-not-an-option” attitude. “Mindset is everything,” Dr. Brager asserts. “The body can accomplish an enormous amount of work with a strong mind,” she says, “but as soon as the mind gives up, it’s over.”

The next time you’re climbing an impossibly tough hill at spin class, check in with yourself: Is your internal monologue supportive or defeatist? Coming up with a mantra to turn to when you feel like slowing down can improve your mindset—and, often, your stamina.

Brain trick #3: Understand neuroplasticity—and let it be your motivator

The benefits of exercise are far-reaching; beyond the likes of strengthening your glutes, you’ve probably heard that physical activity can also boost your mood by releasing endorphins. On a more granular neurological note, “Exercise leads to a physiological phenomenon known as neuroplasticity,” Dr. Brager shares.

Essentially, neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change and adapt in response to various external factors. As it relates to exercise, neuroplasticity equals “increased areas of growth in select brain areas,” Dr. Brager says. Specifically, areas “initiating movement and assessing perception and sensation.”

Moreover, she adds, exercise increases the speed at which brain cells communicate with one another. Translation: Exercise can help you feel sharper, clearer, and more focused.

Brain trick #4: Harness the power of hard-hitting tunes

Ever wondered why certain playlists get you jazzed up? As it turns out, “There is a neuroscientific underpinning to feeling a certain type of way through music,” Dr. Brager says. Specifically, “music activates emotional as well as sensory areas of the brain.” In fact, Dr. Brager says music is her most-used motivational “brain trick” for maintaining a consistent sweat-sesh routine.

Eric Stensvaag, a curator at Feed.fm, previously told Well+Good that there are “scores of research papers and controlled studies demonstrating that music enhances athletic performance significantly.” Moreover, “music can also create an increased commitment to exercise, resulting in people working out more frequently and for prolonged periods.”

Brain trick #5: Meditate

It’s no coincidence that many top-tier athletes swear by meditation. At its core, mediation is a practice in awareness; awareness, for instance, of your breath, your body, and the inextricable connection between the two. In and of itself, this type of “check-in” with one’s body has positive implications for athletic performance.

Meditation also promotes physical and mental rest, both of which are necessary for athletic performance. For this reason, Dr. Brager calls meditation “a useful tool for augmenting recovery.” The practice promotes deep, restorative sleep—which, in turn, increases stamina, focus, and physical energy. As Dr. Brager puts it, restorative sleep is “the most effective performance-enhancing drug out there!”

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