Monday Musings: The “Dumb Jocks” Myth

The idea that brain and brawn are mutually exclusive is fairly well embedded in our culture; the popularity of phrases used to describe weightlifting enthusiasts, like “dumb jock” or “meathead,” make its pervasiveness pretty clear. But is it true? In a word, no. Anyone who’s ever heard Mark Rippetoe assess a novice squatter like a master mechanical engineer, Keith Norris wax poetic about the savage grace of physical culture, or Robb Wolf employ a Battlestar Galactica reference to explain the biochemistry of a glutenous assault on your intestinal tract knows it to be false, but the rest of society tends to lag a bit. Luckily, a few recent studies suggest that resistance training actually promotes neurogenesis – the growth of new neurons in the brain – while another links overtraining to impeded cognitive ability later in life. It may be high time to start disseminating the image of the dumb jogger instead.

The first group of researchers, a team of scientists from Brazil, got rats to “lift weights” by tying weighted objects to their tails and having them climb ladders, five sessions a week (sounds a bit like Crossfit, eh?). They measured levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which is thought to increase neurogenesis, and found that the weight lifting rats’ BDNF levels compared favorably with those of rats who just ran on a wheel. Another group was sedentary and showed very low levels of BDNF. In the researchers’ words, both endurance and resistance training increased BDNF levels (although I’m not sure I’d call sprinting on a running wheel “endurance training”).

Another rat study used weighted and unweighted running wheels; one group of rats ran on an unweighted, normal running wheel and one group ran on a heavier wheel (the extra weight amounted to about 30% of a rat’s bodyweight by the end of the study). The rats on the weighted wheel, who packed on a good amount of lean mass, could only run about half as long as the rats on the unweighted wheel, who gained no muscle. The weighted wheel rats also showed higher BDNF levels and greater gene activity in the brain. Sounds like weighted hill sprints and car pushing are worth working into your routine, huh?

It seems to work in humans, too. Preliminary research from the University of British Columbia’s Aging, Mobility, and Cognitive Function Lab is showing that elderly women who strength train do better in cognitive tests than women who do “toning” work, according to the lab’s principal investigator. Preliminary brain scans of the weight-lifting women with greater cognition seem to show neurogenesis occurring, which would also jibe with the rat studies and the fact that there is a significant neural component to lifting – on the conscious side of things, you’re using your brain to activate your muscles and to guide their trajectory; subconsciously, you’re activating the various energy systems and engaging varying amounts of various types of muscle fibers, depending on the job required. In the end, then, you’re not “just” training your muscles as most people imagine (physical restructuring of the muscle). You’re training the muscle, the energy pathways, the brain, the CNS, and anything else that’s involved in moving your body against a resisting force. And as we know, training something improves it, or, rather, it motivates something to improve itself. This is true for both brain and brawn.

But the law of diminishing returns rears its head, as it almost always does. Another recent study received far less fanfare: women’s (excessive) exercise linked to lower cognitive function. Researchers polled ninety healthy, postmenopausal women about their lifelong exercise habits and tested their cognitive skills. Those who reported exercising “strenuously” showed a statistically significant reduction in cognitive skill when compared to women who exercised “moderately.” Questionnaire studies are notoriously unreliable, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this study reflected reality. After all, overtraining is a potent stimulator of the stress hormone cortisol; excessive, unbalanced levels of which have been linked to depression and lower levels of neurogenesis. I’ve certainly been there as an endurance athlete, and giving up the miles in favor of shorter, faster workouts with weights definitely improved my mental well-being. I don’t know if I would have failed a memory test or anything, but it absolutely felt like a fog had lifted. Brings me back to my personal quest: what’s the least amount of “training” I can do to stay lean, fit, happy, healthy and productive…and allow me more time for “play” and “fun”?

So we come full circle (again): lift heavy things, run really fast, and get plenty of rest in between.

I’d like to hear your thoughts, as always. Has anyone noticed a clearer mind since moving away from chronic cardio toward proper strength training?

TAGS:  Aging

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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49 thoughts on “Monday Musings: The “Dumb Jocks” Myth”

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  1. I used to run 4-6 days a week for the past three years. This year I’ve put into practice some of the things gleaned from your blog, including cutting down on running. I notice I’m performing better, and get sick less often. The mental fog hasn’t lifted entirely, but hoping after I add more short xfit-style weight sessions I’ll build those neurons back!

  2. “Healthy body, healthy mind” is the old saying. So, if the Primal/Crossfit Lifestyles produce the healthiest body, then it only stands to reason that our minds will follow. Physical Anthropologists made an interesting archaeological discovery that our bodies evolved faster to the present form BEFORE our brains. Because, our miraculous bodies are needed to support our brains.

  3. Sometimes I’m not sure where to draw the line with cardio. I love the way interval training makes me look and feel. But would 30-40 minutes a day, 5 days a week be chronic?

    1. Hey Danielle,

      30-40 minutes a day, 5x a week of intense interval training sounds like a lot, but if you’re feeling good I wouldn’t worry about it. Chronic cardio typically refers to intense steady state cardio for more than an hour. We avoid it since after burning through glycogen (due to the intensity), we lose muscle from the cortisol burst (which occurs to keep us going through the overly long, intense session).

      If you’re not feeling overly fatigued, its all good! You can, however, take more rest days when they’re needed without losing fitness. Right down to 1x a week if necessary.

      1. Thank you for such an excellent response.

        I was hoping fasted state morning intervals would help me drop a few pounds.

        But maybe doing it consecutively is a little hard on the joints. Guess this is a good reason to be consistent with the fish oil supps.

    2. I don’t think that sounds chronic at all. I’d like to be able to get to that level of fitness!

    3. How many years have you been doing this? 5+ years in a row I would say that’s a good chronic. If not I will say it could just be a phase. And do you do this in a gym? Do you keep the same schedule? What is your state of mind when you do this?

  4. I would suspect that trail running (and the like), especially if done barefoot or in minimalist footwear, would have a positive effect, given that this kind of activity requires mental engagement with and awareness of one’s movements and surroundings.

    1. Seriously. The necessity of truly opening your mind and senses, especially on a long downhill, makes it almost like jiujitsu. Your mind gets tired much quicker than your body, but it’s great.

  5. Mark, thanks for the info. I have been regularly paying attention to the chronic cardio crowd at my gym (LA fitness, I call it LA Fatness). 90% of the folks (especially women) seem to carry excess fat in their umbilical and hip-crest area.
    On the personal front, I have been listening to my body a lot more and taking more off days in between strength training sessions. I have noticed better cognition and an increased sex drive.

  6. I have to keep pulling back on the cardio. I’m of the mindset “anything worth doing is worth overdoing” I have to listen to those wiser than myself when they tell me to pull back.. Relax.. have fun! My mind is clearer and sharper while eating clean and exercising. No doubt about it~!

  7. From a personal point of view, this really jives with me. I started lifting weights about three times a week last semester while I was also writing my thesis. A few weeks in I noticed that I stopped getting back-pains from hunching over tables in the archives and later on the time in the gym was the only thing that let me stay sane and clear-minded.

    I’m too lazy to overdo things though, I’m just waiting for the sheets of ice on the ground to melt so I can get started on a weekly sprint 😉

  8. I doubt there are long-term effects to overtraining or I would have an IQ of 60 by now, but the short-term effects are there in spades, if you catch me during an overtrained stretch my cognitive functioning is non-existent.

    You really have to work at getting the balance right because the way you get good at anything is by refusing to give up, which invariably leads to overtraining.

  9. Yes the fog cleared when I quit the grains and added sugar and stopped mad training! It was literally as if I could suddenly see everything sharper just like focussing the binoculars.

    And, I think I’ve done some of my best thinking since then. I now seem to make all kinds of mental connections that I’d have been struggling for before.

    And the bliss of not ‘having to go running’ is just wonderful! Just started a yoga class too – wow – that really works you in a completely different way, I’d never have believed it before!

  10. i like anything that has sprinting in it. it makes so strong, it is short, intense but you feel so energized and light and strong afterwards

  11. I have been resistance training for a long time now, off and on… now I do two really intense sessions a week instead of 4 barely working it sessions. The sprints are new to me, but I have to say there is nothing like the freedom of running really really fast! Love it.

  12. Really enjoyed this post. Especially after my mom told me “buff girls are ugly” in response to my signing up for the Olympic Lifting cert through CrossFit. My thought was…”opposed to what? Being fat?!”

    1. I can only hope that she meant the ones who work out to the point of being mannish; though those women like the way they look and that’s all that really matters.

      I don’t know too many guys that think fit/buff girls are ugly, especially if they are keeping up with them on hikes, bike rides and out playing Frisbee. But, I’m a girl too, so I’m not sure my point is valid.

      1. Yeah, I had to tell her repeatedly that STEROIDS are what turn a woman from strong to manly. So disturbing. Equally as disturbing as my stepdad telling me it’s all in my head that vegetables & meat give me energy to workout hard, lift my spirits, and help me sleep. And I won’t even begin on the conversation on ORGANIC food. Holy cow.

  13. Those of us who got raised with the “no pain, no gain” mentality about exercise really got cheated.

    Great post. Love it!

  14. Love it Mark! Whenever I was working on a big project, I always found that a trip to the gym was just what I needed to focus my thoughts and get my head on straight. Maybe it was the extra BDNF?

    Also, I totally agree that the title “dumb-jock” is way overused/outdated. I recently decided to for-go going to school for a PhD in lieu of becoming a personal trainer. The reactions I got were varied, and definitely not all positive. I try to explain to my family and friends that teaching people to move correctly, analyzing new medical reports and designing nutrition programs, etc. requires a lot of know-how and skill, but it isn’t an easy sell. Every day, my goal is to help break down that “dumb-jock” image.

  15. Ever since I gave up the Chronic Cardio game my “street smarts” have gotten a lot better. My formally socially awkward self has disappeared. While my grades have remained about the same in school I feel like I know what I’m talking about a lot more.

  16. I have really enjoyed getting away form the chronic cardio. I don’t know if it’s the short intense exercise or the long walks in the woods. But I am definitely more focused, more clear and far far less fatigued!! I used to look down on “walkers” and now I’ve slowed down and joined them and feel fantastic! And with a few heavy things to lift I am also getting stronger every week!

  17. What does ‘smarter’ mean in this context. I’m wondering if your brain is adapting to new stimuli hence building receptor to react to other things in your life. Over-training could dull these or perhaps do something different that wouldn’t make you cognitively smarter but perhaps your physical performance would increase.

    Exercise is good for your brain, but I feel like it’s tough to say whether it makes you smarter or not — it’s all a matter of priorities.

  18. Mark, Thanks for putting that way: what’s the least you can do. I’m coming back from an auto accident (5 workouts so far) and its so easy to add another exercise and another to routine as you get fitter.

  19. I was so relieved when I started to realize that less time put into better types of exercise can actually create better results! I felt like that hamster on a wheel at times in my treadmill days, and my body responds so much better to weights and sprints, and… what was the other thing… oh yeah, rest… off to do that one now! thanks for the post.

  20. I know many hardcore CrossFitters that spend entirely too much time being sick. I used to be one of them. Listen to Mark and enjoy being in shape by not being sick all the time!

  21. The weighted style running that was patterned in the article goes right along with the heavy KB swings that I do. I run 2 times a week for 30 minutes, and do 2 days of strength training with the 100% swings for my sprint workout. And as a result, less injury, my runs are FASTER (but takes less effort, or in other words still within the target heart rate), and I see a big change in my ability at work, no longer do I sit and stare blankly at the computer screen forgetting what I was doing 3 minutes ago (it got pretty bad), my ability to multi-task is back!

  22. I’ve noticed that since I started practicing PBL, I’ve felt cognitively sharper and quicker. Since I’ve never neglected one aspect while following others, I don’t know whether to attribute this to the change in diet, in exercise or forcing myself to go to bed on schedule.

    I will say I love having more free-time due to less frequent, shorter duration workouts, having more lean mass gains and fewer injuries and never dreading my fun, creative, cross-fit/PBL inspired workouts!

  23. When I started PB and got over the low carb flu of the first couple of weeks and then began to feel much better, I noticed a very marked improvement of the clarity of my thought.

    Since I am one of those chronic cardio triathlon nuts, then I’m guessing this was more down to the diet than to the reduced exercise volume.

    Having said that, several hours training a day and especially the long runs/rides makes you so tired that the brain is obviously going to be running slow afterward. I always feel more alert after some moderate (usually swim) exercise in the morning.

    But the change in diet was a big transformation – it felt like a cloud had been lifted from my mind – where previously it was foggy, easily distracted, and often requiring a cat nap, now it feels razor sharp most of the time.

  24. From what I’ve heard people with high levels of testosterone have a lower average IQ than those with lower test levels. Ofc this has nothing to do with exercise (except those with lower IQ are more likely to have athletic potential)

    1. Testosterone doesn’t lead to lower IQ, it’s just that a certain group of people who happen to have higher T and lower IQ skew the numbers.

  25. When you think about it (now that I can LOL!) you aren’t constantly fighting your brain for the glucose because when you train PB you’re not burning everything you have in point less joint busting miles!

  26. So thats what that look on my brothers face is when we go running. The death/zombie look is mental fog because deep down inside I’m sure he hates running. When I run with him (and by run I mean I sprint until out of breath then jog with him until I catch my breath then repeat)I keep a smile on my face (during the rest between my sprints. 🙂

  27. Yes, it’s true from the other angle as well. Just because someone is intelligent doesn’t mean they have to be a “nerd”.

    But just because the potential exists to have control over both matter and spirit, unfortunately most people tend to favor one over the other.

    The fact is that most intelligent people apologize for their mind and give up a lot of their assertiveness (which is sometimes manifested as a lack of intensity/agression in physical activities). And a lot of people who are very assertive tend not to trust their mind, because of the social conditioning.

    It comes down to deeply-entrenched philosophical beliefs about the apparent mind vs. body dichotomy, which have been around since Plato.

  28. There are so many leftover bad ideas from high school, like the ‘dumb jock’ or the ‘nerd’ or ‘stoner’, etc. The biggest problem is that most of us hold on to those limiting beliefs long after.
    I think part of it is a leftover class bias from earlier times when ladies didn’t sweat and gentlemen didn’t get their hands dirty. People still confuse their position in life with their intelligence. The dumb jock idea is probably rooted in envy, because the jocks were more popular and had more fun in high school!

    Also, I would love to hear people’s thoughts about Jack LaLane. He was obviously very smart and had a huge influence on the health of so many people. My favorite thing I heard him say is “you wouldn’t give a cup of coffee and donut to your dog. Why would you want to eat that?”

  29. Great article. I always get upset when I hear people catigorize themselves or others as a “jock” or “nerd”. Like Matt mentions, these are self-limiting beliefs that can really hold people back from their true potential.

  30. Exercise and fitness is like everything else. Too much of anything is not good for you. I’ve learned over the last 30 years of training that balance and moderation in my fitness routine is the key to life-long health and happiness.

  31. Most PC Cyberathletes (professional gamers) are in shape. One notable player being Fatal1ty, he plays tennis for 4-8 hours a day.

  32. When I think of a “dumb jock,” I think of one-dimensional people, that is, people who are only interested in their sport(s) of choice, while shunning art, music, philosophy, science, politics, nature, etc…

    Mark, you convey a healthy curiosity about a myriad of subjects, which is what brings me back often to MDA. Clearly, you are not a dumb jock…

    In my experience, exercise makes me feel more like a “whole” person, helps to balance me out, and I do think more clearly after a workout.

    And, exercise is but one slice of the primal pie of life for me. I love the term “Renaissance Man (or woman),” and I strive to be one in my life. There are many ways to improve brain function. What you do with that improved function is where you define your life, IMHO.

  33. I write extensively on the topic of brain health and I think another reason the women who exercised vigorously lost cognitive function could be from excessive free radical formation which is very damaging to brain cells.

  34. I am 47 and diagnosed bipolar type 2 since high school. This disease can be very difficult to manage, but have found HIITraining to be very helpful. Mental health issues are huge in my family. I take my meds and eat good, but intense exercise equals free meds (and the best meds)…endorphins galore and the production of bdnf and neurogenisis. Bdnf has been described to me as Miracle Grow for the brain. I do believe both cardio and strength training combined is a powerful weapon against depression in particular. If you struggle with mental illness, I encourage you to push yourself with hard exercise. I use T25 and Insanity max 30
    and find these workouts really push me…and I feel good.