Exercise Which Maximizes Neurotransmitters?
I wrote recently about my interview with Phil Campbell, author of The Sprint 8 Cardio Protocol. Campbell’s book is the fruit of 30 years of self-monitoring, coaching, medical testing, and academic research focused on finding the optimal exercise training program. The conclusion is that the center part of such a program should not be the widely recommended long-form aerobic session, but rather short-form exercise which takes the trainee quickly into anaerobic territory. To get the highest health gains overall, Campbell recommends 8 sprints at maximum speed spread out over a 20 minute time period, 3 times per week.
It’s hard. It’s very hard. By the 2nd sprint I find myself wishing I had never read this book. But after I’ve completed my 8th and caught my breath, I find myself liking Campbell again and blessing him for his research. This pleasant glow hangs around for a couple of hours and I still feel some of it for the rest of the day. The next day I’m usually somewhat sore; not injured, just sore.
Campbell’s more recent findings indicate that if one does the 8 sprints, and then follows up quickly with weight training, there is synergistic effect in which Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is accessed in such a way as to increase strength gains. At age 54 I was pretty much resigned to being able to at best slow an inevitable decline in strength and fitness. I had given up on gaining strength. But since embracing this approach I’ve seen some modest gains. But it’s very physically demanding to stack weight training on top of ultra-high intensity interval training. There’s no free lunch here. It hurts.
So, why do it? If it’s this hard, is it worth it? I’m not an athlete, I’m a knowledge worker. My bio says ‘economist’ and I think I can safely assert that it will never mention ‘underwear model’ or NFL. I don’t compete in any sports; I compete in a marketplace. Is this intensity justified for entrepreneurs and executives?
I think it is.
First of all, sprints are not a time hog. It’s tough to be really fit and a high career achiever at the same time. If one takes the standard long-form aerobic approach the hours fill up pretty quickly. In order to lose weight when I was using a standard aerobic approach, I needed to keep upping the mileage: 10-mile bike ride, 20, 30, 40… Before trying sprints, my wife and I were planning to shoot for 50 mile rides because the weight loss had stalled at the 30-40 mile level. That’s a huge drag on the schedule. With sprints, we go about 20-30 minutes per day, three days per week. That’s an hour or two per week rather than an hour or two per day. The same goes for gym rats who spend a couple of hours per day pumping iron (well, pumping chrome anyway). It’s almost impossible to have a high productivity week as a wealth creator and a family member and also be a gym rat at the same time. I suppose some can manage to be good spouses and parents and entrepreneurs and triathletes at the same time, but the clock is against you.
Second, high intensity exercise boosts energy levels. As an entrepreneur, I tend to hit energy limits before I hit time limits. We’re not designed to work every waking hour 7 days per week. Our bodies revolt. But remember: mitochondria = energy. Mitochondria take nutritional fuel and oxygen and turns those two things into readily available energy. Triple your volume of microscopic power plants and you’ll find your base energy rate rising. HGH has the same effect, boosting basal metabolism. High intensity exercise has given me back my evening work session.
Third, high intensity exercise physically affects the nervous system. HIIT (high-intensity interval training) has a wide spectrum of nootropic effects. It boosts the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine diminishes feelings of depression but it is also a key neural compound for pattern recognition. It helps us see patterns which we formerly had not noticed. In fact, excess dopamine (for example from genetic abnormalities) can lead to paranoia, which is a form of excess pattern recognition: paranoids find patterns which aren’t actually there.
HIIT increases hippocampal volume, the center of memory. In other words, intense exercise increases the capacity of your organic ‘hard drive’ (soft drive?). It increases neuroplasticity, which is the ability to make new neural connections. Maybe that’s because it also stimulates neuro-genesis. New neurons create the capacity for new connections. It’s not clear exactly what the chemical mechanisms are which lie behind these positive effects. Some of them are dopamine related, but HGH clearly plays a role. HGH is associated with all these effects plus it acts as a protective for the central nervous system against various forms of degeneration. People who, for whatever reasons, suffer from HGH deficiencies suffer many different forms of cognitive impairment.
I don’t know about you, but I’m looking for every edge I can get. It’s tough out there. The improvements to be gained from this regimen are real, but modest. This is not Flowers for Algernon (for readers) or Charly (for movie goers) or Limitless (for movie goers under 40) stuff. To me, these various improvements amount to maybe an extra hour of productivity per day and perhaps (subjectively judged) memory, focus, and processing capacity increases of 5%. But it all adds up.
Let me add a final point: Longevity. They say that life is a marathon. Well, ironically, I think we need sprints to finish our marathons. The cult of nootropics and productivity bio-hacking appears to me to be dominated by the young. But I think that the greatest benefits are for older folks. It’s much harder to boost focus and memory by five percent for someone in their 20s than it is to prevent a five percent decline for someone middle aged and older. I think adding an extra several years’ worth of cognitive clarity at the back end of a life of learning is of incalculable (and not because I’m too old and addled to calculate it) benefit to whichever enterprises are fortunate enough to be associated with such people.
To me, it’s worth the pain.
I sat down across a Skype line with Campbell recently and we spoke at length about his new book, The Sprint 8 Cardio Protocol, about what he’s learned and what he is still learning. You can listen to the interview here and read a partial transcript below. Both have been edited for clarity.
Jerry Bowyer: The name of the book is “Sprint 8 Cardio Protocol”. Phil also has a book called “Ready, Set, Go”, which is kind of an overall how-to exercise book, which has the sprints but it also has the stretching, and it has the weight training, and fast weight training also and slow weight training, and normal. But his new book is more focused on the sprint and on the cardio effects, the health effects of it, et cetera.
You really keyed in on human growth hormone. Can you give us some sense, in terms of measurable human growth hormone, what kind of benefits you get from sprinting? Not just sprinting, but your kind of sprinting, all-out sprinting, compared to not doing it? What kind of boost do you get on HGH?
Phil Campbell: Well, there could be an 800 percent increase, which means if you did Sprint 8 today, we pulled your blood immediately after and tested it like you would test an Olympic athlete, you would probably test false positive for injecting growth hormone. It’s a huge amount of growth hormone. It’s not just a little increase; we’re talking about a huge amount that’s ‑‑ just like you went to the endocrinologist to get an injection of it, it’s a huge amount that you’re getting. And they show at the University of Virginia Medical Center really a body of research by the Weltmans that that hormone stays elevated for two full hours going after body fat, like you’re doing hard cardio for two hours.
And what most people don’t understand about cardio is the moment your body temperature comes down, the calorie burning’s over, notwithstanding a very little muscle you may build during that. But with the sprint-intensive cardio, with the Sprint 8 you’re talking about a two-hour synergy window after that where your body is working ‑‑ going after body fat like you’re doing hard cardio for additional two hours.
Originally published on Forbes.