Because my only image of him was a self portrait done in his later years, I’ve never thought of Leonardo da Vinci as an active and athletic young man. But aside from his fame as an artist, engineer, and inventor, the world’s original renaissance man was renowned for his physical strength, and his athletic and attractive appearance. In fact, Leonardo was known in his day as the “strongest man in Florence.” He would impress visitors to his studio with acts of remarkable physical strength, like bending horseshoes with his bare hands. As a young man, born illegitimately to an aristocratic official, he was raised in his father’s household and excelled at the typical physical pursuits of males of his era, horsemanship and fencing. Throughout his life, he was fond of hiking and unlike most men of his time, he stayed in prime physical condition well into later years. 


The correlation of Leonardo’s creativity to physical activity is simply one example of the emerging scientific evidence that links exercise to what’s scientifically referred to as cognitive flexibility


He may be best known as an artist, the creator of iconic paintings such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. But, Leonardo’s creativity seems boundless. In dozens of fascinating notebooks, he showcases the breathtaking expanse of his genius, covering topics from engineering, water dynamics, mechanics, anatomy, botany, and war machines. Because he was left-handed and didn’t want to smudge his writing, he taught himself to write backwards, from right to left, as if to be read in a mirror. 


So much of this dizzying output serves as evidence of a remarkably active and productive brain. He epitomized cognitive flexibility. 


Cognitive Flexibility


What do we mean by that term? 


In his book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, John Ratey, MD notes, “cognitive flexibility is an important executive function that reflects our ability to shift thinking and to produce a steady flow of creative thoughts and answers… The trait correlates with high performance levels in intellectually demanding jobs.” 


Scientists continue to demonstrate that we enhance our cognitive flexibility from even short single sessions of exercise, such as 30 minutes of brisk walking. In one notable study from 2007 that mimicked the game show, Family Feud, two groups of 20 middle-aged people were asked to rattle off alternative uses for common items, things such as a newspaper, which aside from being read can be used as package stuffing, wrapping paper, to line a pet’s cage, etc. One group of 20 did a moderately vigorous 35 minute session on the treadmill. The other just watched movies. Each group was tested before, immediately after, and again 20 minutes later. The folks who watched movies showed no improvement. The exercise group showed significant improvement in processing speed and cognitive flexibility. 


Isn’t that encouraging! Thus, if our work or studies require mental agility and “the ability to shift thinking and produce a steady flow of creative thoughts,” exercise can help boost that capacity. 


How the brain changes from exercise…


So, how does it all work? What changes in our brains when we exercise to make us more cognitively nimble? 


In my last post I mentioned the role that neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, play in helping us to focus. Those neurochemicals are at work here too. 


Additionally, there are chemicals known as growth factors that we produce with exercise. One such growth factor is known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. Whereas, neurotransmitters are involved in carrying the signals from one neuron to the next, BDNF works by building and improving the cell circuitry. 


If we can imagine our brain cells as plants with long stems, roots, and leaves, then BDNF is a lot like Miracle Grow. It strengthens the roots and stems, grows more leaves, and even helps to germinate new seeds. 


Remember that, generally speaking, the more brain cells we have and the more connected they are with other brain cells, the better off we are cognitively. BDNF is a miraculously powerful fertilizer that works to improve the strength of the individual cells, thickening the myelin sheaths of the nerve endings. It increases and improves the synaptic connections with other brain cells, which allows them to communicate more quickly and effectively. And BDNF sparks neurogenesis, the creation of new brain cells. It is such amazing stuff, who wouldn’t want more of it?!?!


Exercise produces a flood of BDNF! 


And, while any exercise is beneficial to our cognitive ability and creativity, additional research has shown that complex activities compound the benefits. Dr. Ratey notes that while exercise, “elevates neurotransmitters, creates new blood vessels that pipe in growth factors, and spawns new cells, complex activities put all that material to use by strengthening and expanding networks. The more complex the movements, the more complex the synaptic connections. And even though these circuits are created through movement, they can be recruited by other areas and used for thinking.” 


Hence, when we perform challenging new movement patterns that may feel awkward, frustrating, and may make us feel silly at first, we’re directly imprinting new and improved neural pathways and creating brand-new baby brain cells! Those workouts are making us smarter and more creative!!!


Leonardo didn’t have the benefit of all this amazing scientific discovery when he was working in the 15th century. Heck, the printing press was only invented 13 years before he was born. But, his experience and life long habits of physical activity seem to suggest that he must have understood the productive connection between exercise and creativity. 


When we check-in again, we’ll explore how the miraculous effects that exercise can have on our emotional and psychological health. Look for that post that I’m titling, Don’t Worry, Be Happy: How Exercise Can Help Us to Not Sweat. 


Hopefully some of this has inspired you to get up and move. We’d like to help. Julie and I share a passion and a mission to teach, guide, and support as many good people along a path to optimal physical, emotional, and cognitive health. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if we could be of any assistance


And please share this post with your friends and family. Thanks so much for the support! 


Be strong, have fun!


Works cited: 

  1. Isaacson, W. Leonardo Da Vinci. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.
  2. Ratey, J. Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008. 
  3. Suzuki, W. Healthy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to Activate Your Brain and Do Everything Better. New York: Harper Collins, 2015. 

Paul Reilly

Paul is the Owner and Founder of MidStrong. He created MidStrong in 2017 to train men and women in midlife who are busy with work and family to build muscle and burn fat so they can look and feel better than they did in their 20’s. MidStrong is making Functional Fitness training safe and fun, and inclusive. He and his wife, Julie also own and operate MidStrong locally, their bricks and mortar business, previously called ACCELERATED Strength & Balance. It is a boutique fitness center specializing in training folks in and around Westborough through the challenges of midlife for more than five years.