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BOB BROWN: Exercising The Mind

Most people feel better after exercise.  Years ago, while reporting on the benefits of regular exercise at a meeting in New York, I was stunned by a statement from a woman in the audience.  “How can you ask people to waste so much time exercising?”

I was caught off guard.  Until she threw cold water in my face, I assumed most everyone knew exercise, after one’s dog, is man’s best friend.  Some people have good reasons not to exercise; some are physically impaired, some have no energy left from holding down 2 or more jobs, but most are uninformed about exercise’s many benefits, and some simply are too lazy.

By 1943, as a 7th grade student in James Madison Grammar School, Norfolk, Va, I learned I could run faster than my classmates.  It must have had an enduring effect on the anxious, timid, and withdrawn child I was, but the magnitude of the discovery remained outside my awareness.  Thank God “bullying” was not fully invented until after my childhood.  I was simply “picked on,” pushed around, teased, and rocks were placed on my shoulders and immediately knocked off as undeniable signals that I was intended to fight, but I did only once.

By 1946, I played football in the Community League.  Our team was called the “Lambert’s Point Rangers.”  I had never played the game.  My sister, Edith, helped put on my football shoes in which she placed a penny “for good luck.”  Our season was distinguished by scoring no touchdowns and, of course, winning no games.  In 1947, Chuck Collins coached us diligently to a successful season: we were untied, undefeated, and unscored upon.  I played quarterback.

By 1948 and 1949, I played wingback for Maury High School.  Many of my teammates went on to play well in college.  I scored more touchdowns in 1948 than 1949.  I entered UVA in January 1950 with a Football “scholarship,” not as a recruited played, but as an acquaintance of Bus Male, UVA coach, former remarkable UVA athlete, and co-owner of Camp Greenbrier where I worked for several summers.

It was one of the miracles of my life: a free room in the Football House (504 Rugby Road), a Dupont Scholarship, and a part-time job.

“Get in at safety, Brown,” shouted Art Guepe, head coach.  It was spring practice.  How did coach Guepe know my name?  Was there more than one Brown at spring practice?  He must be mistaken.  I’m fast.  I’m a runner.  I wanted to hear, “Give Brown the ball,” but it never happened.  Once again, even louder he shouted, as if the last time, that it turned out to be, “Get in at safety, Brown.”  Brown was in at safety.

The runner with the ball broke through the line and ran rapidly to my left. It was David and Goliath, but David came without a sling shot or 5 smooth stones.  I ran to him.  I tried to tackle him, but I went down to the ground and he kept running.

“Good tackle, Deac,” said Johnny Papit.  Seeing I was baffled, Johnny said, “You made me drop the ball.”  At the Football House, I was called “Deacon Brown” because I often said, “that’s not right.”  It was a painful, difficult decision, one I regretted for years, but by fall practice I left the team.  Johnny Papit, our fullback, became an All-American.

By 1964, during my second year of medical school, I attended postmortem examinations.  Three young men killed in a car accident were examined.  The pathologist held up the heart and said, “look at these calcifications in the heart’s circulation.  This is evidence of a lifestyle disease.  This is what happens early in life when people neglect nutrition and avoid exercise.”

It was a wake-up call for me.  I bought a copy of the Royal Canadian Airforce Fitness Manual and started working out again.  It was a simple program of running in place, requiring no equipment or space, and a few calisthenics.  Soon I had a sense of well-being again, the one I had when I was in shape.

By 1970, during the third year of my residency, I started teaching Mental Health at UVA.  My first class was taught in the Tumor Clinic at the hospital.  I had 14 students.  The class size grew to over 800 students, but at that time UVA had no classroom large enough to accommodate that many students.  I rented the University Baptist Church and held the Mental Health Class in the church located close to UVA.

Knowing its value, I gave academic credit in Mental Health for physical exercise. More than once, I was called to a meeting of deans.  They plainly opposed my teaching/grading methods.  By this time, I was earning my living as a clinical psychiatrist.  I did not perceive dismissal from the faculty as threatening.  I explained that I had never treated a physically fit depressed patient.

About one-third of a student’s grade could be earned from choosing one of three electives of which The Exercise Elective was the most popular: a first and last day at the track where weight, height, blood pressure, and two-mile walk-run were measured and recorded in an Exercise Journal.  The exercise, 30 minutes daily for at least 3 days/week was pledged on their word of honor.

Mental Health ended in 2005 when I moved to Fort Lee to treat Soldiers with combat-induced PTSD.  Approximately, 30,000 students at UVA took Mental Health.  No one enjoyed it more than me.

Since the class ended, evidence continues to pour in that regular modest exercise stimulates stem cells in the brain to convert into neurons or brain cells, occurring primarily in the hippocampus where emotional memories are stored.  BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor) is the brain enzyme responding to exercise.

Irisin, an enzyme in muscle fibers, named after the Greek goddess Iris for messenger, was thought to be released from muscles during exercise and transported to the brain where it was initially considered to play a role in cleaning the brain debris involved in dementia.  Sadly, however, the early hopeful expectations associated with Irisin remains on the research bench.

For goodness sake, when impressing friends at the dinner table, do not say that “it’s the endorphins that make you feel good after exercise.”  Quietly mention BDNF, proving you are thinking clearly because you went for a nice walk today.

Robert S. Brown Sr.

Robert S. Brown, MD, PHD a retired Psychiatrist, Col (Ret) U.S. Army Medical Corps devoted the last decade of his career to treating soldiers at Fort Lee redeploying from combat. He was a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Professor of Education at UVA. His renowned Mental Health course taught the value of exercise for a sound mind.

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