From Harder to Smarter – Conquer and Surpass Your New Year’s Fitness Goals!

By Neil Sharp*

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln

It is January and, many thousands of people have made a New Year’s resolution to exercise regularly and get more fit in 2023. Perhaps you are you one of them. Perhaps you are also one of the many who have made the same resolution in the past just to keep it for a couple months, or perhaps a week or two, or maybe not at all?

How come so many people want to get fit and yet find themselves falling short of their goals? No need to berate yourself or think that you need more willpower. In this month’s article you can learn what you and your brain need to increase the likelihood that you will fulfill your desire for greater fitness and health. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln’s quote above, we will guide you in how you can spend the first four hours in enhancing your brain’s functioning. A more potent brain can lead to more efficient, elegant, safe, and pleasurable movement, all of which make your goals more attainable.

Let’s look at why it may be difficult for many people to follow through on their fitness resolutions.

One answer is that when it comes to becoming more fit — increasing our flexibility, strength, coordination, and stamina — there are certain commonly held beliefs that contradict what our bodies really require.

Acting on these beliefs often leads to frustration and the belief that we have failed; however, it is only because the way we have been going about it is not how we are built to do it. It is contrary to that which our system is biologically built to say yes to. We need to build our approach to fitness in a way that is harmonious with the way, biologically, we are built to operate. When we proceed from our idea of forcing and repetition, it’s actually a sign of health to renege on our, new Year’s Resolution! Does that sound a little crazy? Bear with me!

The thing that really determines our functioning, our capabilities, and possibilities is our brain, and yet it is one of the parts of our bodies most frequently ignored when it comes to “physical” fitness. However, the brain is central to all growth, learning and development.

So, instead of fighting our biology, let’s give the body what it needs – which is actually giving the brain what it needs. We need to create the conditions to feed our brain with what it requires to upgrade its functioning to generate the information necessary to create something new – perhaps closer to what we desire.

Michael Merzenich, the world-renowned neuroscientist and so called “father” of brain plasticity science claims that when learning occurs in a way consistent with the laws that govern brain plasticity, function can be gained that may have seemed impossible before. [1] He also states that, with the 9 Essentials of NeuroMovement® “Anat Baniel has defined these rules of brain plasticity in practical and understandable human terms.” [2]

Much conventional ‘wisdom’ tells you that if you want to improve your fitness, you must exercise more by carrying out more and more extreme stretches or lifting heavier and heavier weights. You’re told to turn all your attention to your muscles: stretching them, warming them up, pumping them and then doing tedious repetitions. Above all, you’re supposed to constantly try harder and go longer – push through the pain and go for the burn.

While many people may experience improved fitness with these commonly recommended regimens, so many others do not due to injury, pain, or because they simply find it too hard and get discouraged.

The critical ingredient missing from these fitness equations is the understanding of the role of the brain in making every movement of our body possible. Beginning in the womb, continuing during the infant’s early movements and through the increasingly more complex movements we learn, the body is getting mapped into the brain. Think about it: at birth the child doesn’t know she has arms, legs, back, or belly. It takes years before there is enough connectivity between the body and brain so that she can walk, skip, catch a ball, sing a song, or write a letter.

This realization – that the brain organizes all movement – has everything to do with your ability to become more fit, even into your nineties. It is the brain that needs to get new information and create new patterns of movement in order to move us past limitations to new levels of fitness. Exercising repeatedly without providing the brain with the opportunity to create the new, simply grooves in more deeply both what we do well, and that which limits us and brings about injury and pain.

The good news is that there are very direct, easy, and safe ways for us to communicate with our own brain, to wake it up and provide it with the new information it needs. Some of these ways, which I call the Nine Essentials, are counterintuitive, yet are fully supported by current neuroscience research.

Later in the article we will give you some tips for enhancing your fitness based on these Essentials.

One of the 9 Essentials is: Slow. Slowing down is an absolute requirement for the brain to change and learn something new.

Another Essential is Variation. Instead of “drilling” and doing endless repetitions, we ask people to be playful, do things in “wrong” ways. This provides the brain with a flow of new information

with which it can reconfigure the body to perform better. It also makes people smarter – learn faster.

Except for rare occasions, if you are unable to perform a movement, it is primarily because your brain does not yet know how to organize your body—which muscles to contract at which time—in order to get the outcome you are seeking. Your brain has not created a detailed enough map (a process called “differentiation”), so it cannot coordinate the different parts of your body to perform what you are trying to accomplish.

Without this mapping your brain is unable to communicate with all the muscles required to do the movement well, so you are stuck at the same skill level, improve very little, or even get injured. This is true whether your goal is to achieve greater strength, flexibility, stamina, ease, comfort, or well-being.

Here are some tips how to apply four of the Nine Essentials of NeuroMovement® and begin to enhance the fitness level of both your brain and your body. These can create amazing breakthroughs, whether you are a world class athlete, or have never done any fitness before in your life.

  1. SLOW: Next time you are at the gym, Yoga class, taking a walk, or simply about to roll out of bed in the morning, for 2 to 3 minutes slow your movement way down. If you are taking a class, such as a fitness class, let the instructor know that from time to time you will be moving very slowly, and not to worry. Or if you are using a treadmill, put it on a very slow speed.
  2. MOVEMENT WITH ATTENTION: Once you have slowed down, pay very close attention to what you feel in your body, in yourself, as you move. Research shows that when you pay attention to what you feel as you move, the brain immediately begins making millions of new connections per minute and can take this enormous amount of new information for mapping more complete and accurate connections.
  3. VARIATION: Whatever movement you are doing, for two to three minutes do the movement in a few different ways. Even do it “badly”, sloppily or “wrongly” (provided you do it safely!). You’d be surprised how your brain uses this information for greater differentiation and smoother, stronger, more accurate movement. So, if you are trying to do a Yoga pose in just the right way, intentionally experiment playfully with at least three different ways of doing it not the right way, and see what happens when you move back into the correct way of doing into the pose again.
  4. SUBTLETY: Take two to three minutes with whatever movement you are doing, and reduce the force with which you are doing it by half; then reduce the force by still another half.

I hope you will enjoy trying out these new ideas. You can explore them in this month’s movement lesson. Be playful. If your fitness regime is enjoyable, and you see progress, you will be much more likely continue into the coming year and beyond. Make the fitness shift from harder to smarter!

*This article is based on “Easing into Fitness” by Anat Baniel with Neil Sharp MD that appeared in the May 2016 publication of What Doctors Don’t Tell You


[1] Doidge, N. The Brain the Changes Itself. Viking, New York. 2007. P47

[2] Merzenich, M. From the Foreword of Kids Beyond Limits by Anat Baniel, Penguin Perigee, New York. 2012