Fitness: Miracle-Gro for the Brain | with Chris Cooper

I recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Chris Cooper, owner of CrossFit Catalyst in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. We discussed some of the amazing impacts implementing physical and mental fitness activity can have on the brain, and how they’re so closely tied to each other.

From quiet kid to major breakthroughs

Growing up Chris Cooper was an average boy. He said, I was not an athlete. I was a very left-brain kid. Very analytical, to the point of paralysis.” But as the story usually goes. Starting with the high school weight room (on a somewhat antiquated machine), Chris fell in love with fitness.

Chris said, “When I got to college already I realized there was a huge change in self-esteem and my ability, to talk to people, and so I wanted to keep going. I was self-aware enough to realize that I really needed to keep working out.” About a year into college he transferred out of Forensic Science and into Exercise Science. Thus began his lifelong pursuit of understanding the body and mind, and how fitness plays a crucial role.

From the early days of Personal training in the parking lot of a treadmill store, Chris went on to build multiple successful businesses, including his gym, CrossFit Catalyst.

During this time, one of his business partners had a son with Autism. Sadly, in Ontario, there is no real public funding for autism after age 6. So Chris and his partner started working from the theory that exercise had to be helpful somehow for the young boy.

Building on the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), they were able to get remarkable results. “Basically you show the kid a picture of a happy face if he’s done something right and you show them a sad face he’s done something wrong,” Chris said. “We used that system to get him to do an air squat, then to go through two exercises in a row, and then three exercises, then four.”

It didn’t stop with exercises though. They were able to use the same process to help teach him to tie his shoes, then to take himself to the bathroom. Which to anyone unfamiliar with the Autism spectrum might not seem so hard, but it is a lot more difficult than it sounds. Furthermore, using this method, over the next three years they were able to move the child from being almost nonverbal to carrying on a sentence!

BNDF | Miracle-Gro for your brain

Around this time, Chris had just hired a new coach who was a teacher. He introduced him to a book called Spark by John Rady (book review forthcoming). The book talks about “Brain-derived neurotrophic factor”, also known as BDNF.

Due to his own experience with his parents, Rady, a researcher from Harvard, was originally interested primarily in research on Alzheimer’s and dementia. Yet a small own in Naperville, Illinois would have a dramatic impact on his research.

Without diving in too deep, Rady observed astounding progress using physical activity at one of the worst schools in the state of Illinois. They had the kids show up 20 minutes before school and run laps with a heart rate monitor on. Over the course of a year, their grades went from last in the state to close to the top five percentile.

In his book, he talks about one chemical, BDNF which he calls “Miracle-Gro for the brain.”

“Basically what happens is when you make a connection between two things you form a synapse in your brain,” Chris said. “When you’re exercising this BDNF is present, and it makes a much stronger connection. So the connection is clearer and you can remember that connection way easier later.”

Ignite Gym | Treadmill Meet CrossFit

No doubt about it. Rady’s discoveries had huge ramifications, even beyond Alzheimer’s. But it made Chris think, “wait a minute, 20 minutes of running the treadmill. That’s okay. But we do CrossFit.” 

Soon one of his clients, an occupational therapist. She brought in one of her clients, a young girl with traumatic brain injury. “As soon as she started doing this stuff, working out and doing word searches. BOOM! rapid progress,” Chris said.

After about six months, they started calling it “ignite” and began offering the program. Within a year, word was spreading, and they put together a book which was about 400 pages long, then later started doing seminars.

The Diet and Brain Function

Diet plays a crucial role for everyone, but especially for those on the autism spectrum. “If you control blood sugar in a child with autism, you’re going to control behavior. When you control behavior, you can teach,” Chris said.

He went on to explain that, “when you bring a kid with a brain injury or with autism or with behavioral issues you really gotta treat the whole family because you bring a kid in you work them out. You do the math, and then he goes home and there’s nothing for dinner and then he has Pop Tarts for breakfast. Then he gets kicked out of school. It’s a constant loop.”

Breaking this loop. Providing healthy food and helping the children and their family improve in this arena helps the child to make and maintain constant progress.

As the saying goes, “most people don’t know what feeling good feels like … until they’ve felt good.”

PTSD & Application beyond autism

When we hear the term PTSD, we generally think of military veterans. The number of people affected spans a much broader range than that though. PTSD from traumatic incidents can cause any number of effects on the individual.

PTSD is a combination of physical brain injury and it’s also psychological trauma. “Exercise helps on the trauma side by allowing them to break the connections,” Chris said. “They form the new memories faster and also strengthen the connections that let them override those bad memories faster.”

On the other hand. Sometimes there is an actual traumatic brain injury. “Exercise is not going to heal the brain, but it will make the brain rewire itself a lot faster,” he said. This on top of mood enhancement, and building physical resiliency all work together to help the person deal with the PTSD more efficiently.

Beyond that, these principles have broad-reaching effects across the board. Building up all the various skill sets is a fundamental part of building fitness. It makes sense to do the same for our brains.

If CrossFit workouts and brain work help those with Autism and PTSD or help those who used to be flunking high school, why would you and I be any different?

Chris went on to elaborate, that if someone just ‘can’t remember names and faces’ the way they used to, it means that their prescription is going to be “three days of CrossFit and then four days a week. I want them to do cognitive challenges. That might be something similar to World Memory Championship card memorization.” It might be math. A lot of the time, it might be something simple like a word-search.

Bringing it into the gym – Two Brain Business

Chris Cooper offers a tailored course for gym owners and coaches, called Two Brain Business. When discussing this program with Chris it really struck me how simple and obvious a program like this would be for gym owners. In the fitness world, we tout how being good across all the 10 physical domains leads to the best results. Why would that be different for business skills, interpersonal EQ skills, and so on?

This is why I believe a course like Two Brian Business is, pardon the pun, a no-brainer. In the words of Chris, “Algebra is the double-unders of adulting“. It’s painfully true. Business owners all have skills and attributes they know are lacking. A program like this can help build those weaknesses into strengths!

Once coaches already have an established business or are at least about ready to open their doors, taking a course like Two Brain Business will not only arm them with the necessary tools to do their job better as a coach, they will also be able to run a thriving business.

With Chris Cooper’s Two Brain Business, Gym owners learn:

  • What BDNF is
  • How:
    • the brain works
    • inner hemispheric coordination works in people who are left-brain dominant vs. right-brain dominant
    • all the parts intertwined and,
    • to run an ignite session

Whether you’re an athlete, gym owner, parent, or teacher, there is a lot of important information wrapped up in this concept. Physical fitness has larger ramifications than just your muscles or waistline. As we’ve covered before on Glycolytic, fitness has huge impacts on many areas of our lives. I think it’s clear to see, through the various examples Chris provided, fitness and brain health go hand in hand and we can use fitness to build stronger brains regardless of the individuals starting point.


For more information on Chris Cooper, his programs, and where he’s been featured recently, I’ve listed a few links and highlights below!

Chris Cooper, Owner of CrossFit Catalyst

Chris Cooper

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Laskey Hart

Editor at Glycolytic.com, CF-L1 Trainer | Since day one in the gym, Laskey has been trying to beat the laws of physics. At 6' 5", it may come as a surprise that Fran is in fact NOT his favorite workout, and burpees are NOT his favorite movement. It does, however, mean that every day is a new day to prove people who say "CrossFit isn't for tall people" -- wrong.

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