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No research required: 1 word, 1 story about the biggest upside to exercise

Based on what I see, I’d say there’s something as magical to the Christmas season as Santa Claus. Decorate a few properties and trees, start seeing Jimmy Stewart and the Grinch on TV, and voilà.

Charity and kindness abound. Hate takes a backseat to patience and tolerance.

Or put another way: Watching little kids open presents on Christmas Day is wonderful, but so is seeing grownups give a bill or two to the guy ringing the Salvation Army bell beforehand - although we may never see that again, complements of COVID-19.

In a similar vein, I’d say there’s another magic to reading besides making tears flow at the end of tragic novels. It’s that a single word in a non-fiction piece can lead to an aha moment and insight.

Recently, the single word that triggered this magic in me came in an article about the four brain-changing benefits derived from exercise. Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki begins the piece she wrote for CNBC by citing other, more obvious benefits to exercise and then makes her main point.

That people rarely consider the effects physical activity has on mental activity, but that a single session of exercise decreases feelings of anxiety and improves your focus and attention. In addition, it promotes the growth of new brain cells and protects your brain from aging and neurodegenerative disease.

Suzuki backs up each of these benefits with a story or two from either her own lab experiments or accepted research. But you won’t read about any of those here.

I’ve already withheld that word of Suzuki’s that made me say, “Aha!” for too long.

Once I read “exercising is one of the most transformative things you can do to improve cognitive abilities, such as learning, thinking, memory, focus, reasoning - all of which help you become smarter and live longer,” my eyes kept backtracking to “transformative.” And it felt as if I had just chugged a triple espresso on an empty stomach - after a workout and a sauna.

“Transformative” created my aha moment.

I realized it’s the perfect modifier for all - let me stress, all - the positive changes attributed to exercise, not just those related to brain function.

It’s an idea I thought merited a column, so I did what I believed was the needed research and took what I imagined were the appropriate notes. But then I pushed all that aside.

I need none of that to share how transformative a renewed commitment to weightlifting has been for my brother. For starters, it’s kept him sane in a time of insanity.

About nine months ago and minutes before he planned to leave his house to visit me, his wife of nearly 22 years decided to tell him something. The marriage was over.

She wanted a divorce.

As I waited for him, I watched 10th-seeded Miami defeat 2nd-seeded Auburn to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. I imagined he was late because he wanted to watch the game’s conclusion, and I was looking forward to hearing his take on Miami’s surprising win.

Instead, we discussed a far different upset, one that led to its own kind of March Madness. The dissolution of a seemingly happy family - and seemingly for no specific reason.

While he handled the initial shock of his wife’s decision well, the whole mess did take its toll on him.

He lost his appetite and his weight went from a full-faced-but-not-really-fat 215 to a why-are-my-pants-so-loose 183. He lost his drive to do just about anything, including lift weights.

Knowing it would help in the long run, though, he kept forcing himself to do so.

One day as he half-heartedly hoisted dumbbells, it occurred to him that the loss of body weight had decreased the day-to-day discomfort in his back and knees brought on by years of heavy lifting. Intrigued, he added more weight to the movements he did that day.

None of his previous pain returned (even the next morning), but something else did.

His motivation - and with it a certain type of strength.

Not the kind produced by fast-twitch Type 2b muscle fibers, the ones that once allowed him to bench press 100 pounds more than his body weight for two reps. At his age of 57, most of those fibers are long gone.

But if you keep working out as you age, you maintain most of next-best type of muscle fiber for lifting, Type 2a muscle fibers, and you’ll even morph a few Type 1 slow-twitch fibers into 2a’s. My brother still has enough of both of those that recently he bench pressed his new body weight six times.

Better yet, he knows he can still getting stronger.

“I have this sense all of the sudden,” he said to me, “that I can’t be kept down - and not only in the weight room.

“Work’s going so much better. The divorce now seems like a godsend. It’s so weird.”

Not so, my little bro. It’s not weird; it’s apropos.

Because Wendy Suzuki has it right. Exercise is one of the most transformative things you can do for your body and your mind.