Does Exercise Make You Smarter?
The human body is designed for action: hinging and rotating joints that support movement in every direction; strong, elastic ligaments and tendons that encourage play while keeping bones and muscles in their proper place; skeletal muscles that facilitate every movement from explosive jumping to flowing Tai Chi; cardiac muscle that tirelessly pumps nourishment to every cell in the body.
The human body thrives with regular cycles of activity and recovery. Active bodies are at lower risk for heart disease, obesity, various cancers, diabetes and hypertension; and active people generally have more stamina, lower resting heart rates, more muscle tone and less body fat.
Studies show that exercise is good for your body, but recent findings in neuroscience have shown that it's also good for your brain.
Miracle-Gro for Your Brain
For years scientists suspected that exercise and brain functioning were connected, but until recently, the only link researchers could assert with certainty was that aerobic activity increases the level of well-oxygenated blood pumping to body and brain, which leads to nourished body and brain cells.
But as a recently published study, co-authored by neurologist Scott Small from the Columbia University Medical Center and Fred Gage of the Salk Institute, illustrates, exercise's impact on the brain is far more complex--and powerful--than just oxygenating brain cells.
According to recent research in the field of neuroscience, here's a breakdown of what happens when you head out for that lunchtime run:
- As you exercise, your muscles contract.
- This releases chemicals, including a protein called IGF-1.
- IGF-1 travels to the brain and stimulates the release of several chemicals, including brain derived neurotropic factor (BDNF).
- Regular exercise increases levels of BDNF.
- BDNF stimulates neurons (brain cells) to branch and connect in new ways.
- New junctions between neurons are the basis of learning.
The take-home message? Bodies that exercise regularly stimulate brains to have higher levels of BDNF; brains with higher levels of BDNF have greater capacity for knowledge.
So in the words of John Ratey, Harvard psychiatrist and author of Spark: The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain, BDNF is like "Miracle-Gro for your brain."
Smarts Tomorrow, Focus Today
Even if all those new neural connections don't validate your efforts to become a regular exerciser, there's good news. Studies have shown higher circulating levels of thought-facilitating and mood-stabilizing neurotransmitters (namely, dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine) within an hour of exercising.
So if you're feeling antsy, frustrated or you're having trouble concentrating, get up from your desk and get moving. It'll help you focus today, and, with enough days of activity strung together, before you know it, you'll be in BDNF city.