New books on better training that include brain as well as body

Need help pushing yourself out the door on a run? Swipe some Gatorade and spit it out in the sink.

It’s a taste of the untraditional advice in this year’s new fitness books, which focuses on the role of the brain in training and ways in which movement can improve cognitive function and mental health. Several books explore not only how movement affects the brain, but also how the brain affects movement, and offer ideas on mindfulness during exercise or tricks to short-circuit the brain’s barriers to exercise. (Gatorade-swish, a book theorizing, misleads the brain into believing that the system gets a shock of energy from a sugary beverage, even if it is not.)

“We forget that the body is attached to the brain,” says Caroline Williams, author of the recently released “Move: How the New Science of Body Movement Can Set Your Mind Free.” “We can use our body as a tool to influence the way we think and feel, as a hotline for the mind.”


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In her new book “52 Ways to Walk: The Surprising Science of Walking for Wellness and Joy, One Week ad Time”, Annabel Streets tackles the boredom that can creep into a worn-out fitness routine. Offbeat tips to keep things interesting include going a little backwards or turning your head upside down to see the world upside down. To protect brain health, she cites a study that calls for four minutes of brisk walking, then three minutes of easy walking through a longer walk. Ms. Streets add to galloping, dancing or jumping to keep it fresh.

Her specialty: Movement is medicine. “A 12-minute walk changes 522 metabolites in our blood – molecules that affect our heartbeat, the respiration in our lungs, the neurons in our brain,” she writes in the book, which will be published next month. “Oxygen flows through us and affects … our memory, creativity, mood, our ability to think.”


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Many of these books were already under way when a mental health crisis arose alongside the pandemic. While these writers worked, they looked at ways the body could deal with anxiety and depression. The authors believe that there is an eager audience after this message, noting that Covid-19 has made millions reconsider their routines, including training habits.

“I want people to dust off their connection to their body so they can hear what their body wants and needs,” says Dr. Ellen Vora, a psychiatrist. In her new book, “Anatomy of Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming the Body’s Fear Response,” out in March, she argues that physical activity is ignored by experts who are too focused on mental health from the neck up. “It’s the low-hanging fruit,” she says. “Brain chemistry, thoughts, behaviors can take years to process on the couch.”


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Jennifer Heisz explores the neuroscience around training in “Move the Body, Heal the Mind: Overcome Anxiety, Depression, and Dementia and Improve Focus, Creativity, and Sleep,” scheduled for release on March 8. She offers ways to redirect the mind when it resists movement. A tip: Play music before a workout, which she says floods the brain with dopamine, the feel-good hormone that can make movement feel less strenuous.

Dr. Heisz served as his own guinea pig, going from a sedentary academic to a triathlete, a transformation mentioned in the book (which ends with her completing a solo Ironman when the event was canceled due to the pandemic).

‘We can use our body as a tool to influence the way we think and feel, as a hotline for the mind’


– Caroline Williams, author of ‘Move: How the New Science of Body Movement Can Set Your Mind Free’

One of her more exciting tricks involves swishing a sugary drink in her mouth without swallowing – even maple syrup would work, the Canadian researcher suggests, just not a sugar substitute. The action triggers the brain, which naturally wants to conserve the energy for survival, to release dopamine to help set in motion training based on the false promise of sugar, she explains.

Nita Sweeney says in her book that exercise can be turned into a powerful meditative practice.


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“The brain is always working against you not to use energy, but we can override it,” says Dr. Heisz, who studies the effects of exercise on brain health as director of the NeuroFit Lab at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

In her new book “Make Every Move a Meditation: Mindful Movement for Mental Health, Well-Being, and Insight,” out in August, Nita Sweeney argues that pickleball or a Zumba class can be turned into a powerful meditative practice if benefits spread to other areas of life. Focusing the mind on a single thought, object, or sensation during exercise can help bring clarity and peace of mind, she says.


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“For running, I often use my left foot,” she says. “I do not know why, but the feeling of my left foot hitting the ground is noticeable to me.” She encourages people to use “a little bit of willpower” to keep focusing on a single object as they train and bring thoughts back as it wanders.

Dr. Robin Berzin, a functional medicine doctor, fills his prescription pad with instructions for patients to exercise. In “State Change: End Anxiety, Beat Burnout, and Ignite a New Baseline of Energy and Flow,” coming out next week, she puts a starter kit for readers who use exercise for mental health, a six-day weekly course of cardio , strength training and more meditative practices like yoga and tai chi.

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The author, the founder of the national holistic medical practice Parsley Health, outlines reasons why exercise is mandatory for those seeking mood stability and better mental health. She offers all sorts of research-supported motivations, as well as the kind of hard love that requires no explanation.

“Just do it,” she writes, “now.”

Write to Ellen Gamerman at ellen.gamerman@wsj.com

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