Exercise Supercharges The Brain For Improved Memory and Willpower

Although we talk a lot about how exercise impacts fat loss, there is a much bigger discussion to be had about exercise and it’s total impact of the body.  In this post we’ll discuss how exercise impacts the brain in a very positive way, which will have a significant influence on memory, thinking sharpness, and…fat loss.

Exercise Leads To Supercompensation

We evolved in an environment characterized by constant threat of physical harm. When we were cave people, we were surrounded by animals that wanted to eat us…

When danger presented itself, we would look to the glycogen stores within our muscles to help us run or fight our way out of danger. So, our body became very good at evaluating how much energy we had stored in the muscles to be used when danger was around.

Our body is an amazing machine, it not only is able to repair itself and reload the lost glycogen, it actually adapts to the environment. So, when we are forced to burn the glycogen within the muscles, the body adapts not just by restoring the glycogen that was lost but also adding a extra in order to account for the increased danger in the environment.

We call this super compensation, meaning the body adds a little bit extra in the reserves to account for any perceived future danger.

During our evolution, exercise didn’t exist. We ran and moved only when we had reason to do so. When we exercise intensely for long periods of time and on multiple occasions, the body perceives this as having to run away or fight from multiple environmental dangers. The result is the muscle store significantly more glycogen in order to provide us with more fuel to fight or run away.

The muscles, however, are not the only tissue in the body that uses glycogen. The brain is primarily fueled by glycogen, and unlike the muscles, cannot burn fat for energy.

A recent study suggests that exercise not only depletes glycogen within the muscles but also depletes glycogen within the brain and the result is supercompensation within the brain.

This is an important and amazing finding because it explains why exercise appears to make us smarter and to improve our memories. It’s also likely that supercompensation within the brain will result in more energy for the willpower parts of the brain which can ultimately help us to eat better and stick to our exercise regimen.

During this study, researchers placed rats on an exercise program. During exercise, glycogen levels in the brain dropped 50-64%. The amazing thing is 6 hours after the exercise the rats had 29-63% more glycogen stored in the brain than before the exercise! That’s supercompensation.

Even after the exercise had stopped, certain areas of the brain continued to have supercompensated levels of glycogen for at least 24 hours.

How This Connects To Fat Loss

An area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex is responsible for manufacturing our willpower. This part of the brain is very susceptible to becoming exhausted with all of the decisions and willpower needed in everyday life…

If exercise increases the amount of glycogen available to the brain this will likely increase the amount of willpower that we are capable of within a day. The result is exercise will provide us with more brain energy needed to push away the tasty treats that surround us and get up off the couch and exercise.

The type of exercise is going to be most effective at improving brain glycogen levels is going to be exhaustive interval training and or resistance training.

The standard recommendations of 20 to 30 minutes of moderate activity is unlikely to provide the level of glycogen depletion needed to result in supercompensation. This is one more study that lends support to high intensity interval training and whole body resistance training as a superior Form of exercise for health and fat loss.

One final note…

Exercise has lasting benefits and short term benefits. Based on this evidence, we can’t exercise today and expect supercompensation for a month. Nature blesses us with 24 hours of supercharged brain for each intense exercise session that we expose it to. So, exercise often for best effects!


J Physiol. 2012 February 1; 590(Pt 3): 607–616.


About the Author Dr. Ray Hinish

Dr. Ray Hinish is a nutritional pharmacist, certified personal trainer, & certified Lifestyle & Weight Management Coach. He currently practices in Baltimore, MD, where he owns and operates a wellness center and natural foods restaurant. His mission is to help folks to live their health potential so that they can pursue their passions with confidence and endless supplies of energy!

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