The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Boot Camp for the Brain and Body

Written by
Sue Beckham, PhD
Posted in
Live well

Thursday, Apr 14, 2016

We focus on training our bodies but miss opportunities to train the brain. Making healthy choices to exercise, eat right, or manage stress does not happen by chance. By training the brain, we can increase the likelihood of making healthy choices.

To better understand how training the brain affects decision-making, let us take a look at how the brain makes choices. The prefrontal cortex, located in the front of the brain, is responsible for executive functions like planning, controlling urges, making choices, organization, and time management. Within the prefrontal cortex are several important regions that affect the choices we make. These include the ventromedial and dorsolateral areas.

We will call the ventromedial area the ‘decision-making’ region (see diagram).  It receives input from other areas of the brain and is responsible for making goal-directed decisions. Without input from other areas, decision-making tends toward shortsighted responses without regard for the long-term consequences, favoring immediate rewards. For example, when a dieter has to choose between a high fat, dessert or fruit, this part of the brain favors the decadent dessert for immediate gratification. However, the tendency to choose based on immediate gratification can be modified by input received from other areas of the prefrontal cortex that provides self-control.

The dorsolateral area of the prefrontal cortex acts as a brake pedal to the instant gratification responses of the ‘decision-making’ area, so we will call it ‘self-control’. Responsible for planning, preparation, and working memory (ability to recall and use information in the middle of an activity), this area of the brain predicts what the future will look like based on a variety of choices. When active, it prompts the ‘decision-making’ area to consider future consequences of our behaviors. The ‘self-control’ area of the brain doesn’t mature fully until approximately 25 years of age, contributing to the tendency for teens and young adults to make poor decisions and engage in risky behaviors (Nelson & Luciana, 2008).

Research (Hare, Malmaud & Rangel, 2011) shows by providing external cues, we can train the ‘self-control’ area of the brain to influence ‘decision-making’ and value healthiness over tastiness. This study recruited non-dieting individuals and measured the amount of activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex using MRI images. Subjects were asked to make food choices based on three considerations: decide naturally, tastiness, or healthiness. Not surprising, there was no difference in the food choices made when deciding naturally and based on tastiness. However, when subjects were asked to make food choices based on healthiness, they made significantly healthier choices than during the other conditions, and activity in the ‘self-control’ area of the brain increased. In fact, they were more likely to eat healthy foods they previously labeled as not tasty.

Boot camp is not just for the body but also for the brain. Just as we plan a variety of workouts to increase the strength and size of our muscles, we need to plan a variety of healthy external cues that will exercise the ‘self-control’ area of our brain. Training the ‘self-control’ part of the brain to assess the long-term consequences of our decisions increases the likelihood of making healthy choices rather than focusing on immediate rewards/gratification. We can do this by creating external cues (reminders) to choose healthy. That could involve simple tasks like a calendar reminder to check out the restaurant menu before arriving and sharing your intent to eat heathy with others when ordering. Or it might involve placing an apple on your desk each day as a reminder to get more healthy fruits in your diet.  

Group exercise instructors and personal trainers, register for The Cooper Institute® Coaching Healthy Behaviors course to learn and practice coaching techniques that you can incorporate into your workouts to create powerful lifestyle transformation. Whether you are an aspiring Wellness Coach or other fitness professional, this course will change the way you engage others in both one-on-one and group settings.

Hare, T., Malmaud, J. and Rangel, A. (2011). Journal of Neuroscience, 31(30):11077-11087.
Nelson, C. & Luciana, M. (Eds.). (2008). Handbook of developmental cognitive neuroscience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.