Can exercising make you smarter?

Some studies have also found more widespread changes in brain structure after exercise. Researchers at the University of Illinois recruited 59 older adults into a six-month aerobic training program and compared brain structure to a group that engaged with stretching and toning instead. The training consisted of three 1-hour exercise sessions per week for the six-month period. The researchers found increases in brain volume across a number of different regions, particularly areas in the front of the brain that are associated with attention, memory, behavioral inhibition and decision-making, in the group that did aerobic training but not in the stretching group. They also found increases in the volume of white matter tracts or large nerve fibres that connect different brain regions to one another. These tracts facilitate communication between the left and right sides of the brain, which is often reduced in age-related cognitive decline.

So what do all of these changes in brain structure actually mean? Aside from reducing the risk of age-related disease, exercise seems to boost many aspects of cognition and mental function, even in younger adults. A recent study of 1.2 million Swedish military personnel showed that fitness is correlated with intelligence. Moreover, research has consistently linked exercise with improvements in attentional control, processing speed, working memory capacity, and the ability to switch between tasks. This means it’s likely to help you perform better at work, get better grades in school, learn new skills quicker, and make smarter decisions.

But how much exercise do we really need? While we don’t fully understand the precise relationship between exercise quantity and corresponding changes in brain structure, current guidelines recommend that adults engage in moderate-intensity training (for at least 30 minutes) five days per week, or high-intensity training (for at least 20 minutes) three days per week. This is of course merely a guideline, so I recommend experimenting with different routines until you find what works best for you. If you’re new to exercise, don’t be afraid to start out slow. And remember, one of the most important predictors of exercise adherence is enjoyment, so try to have some fun while you’re at it.

Why Physical Exercise Makes You Smarter and Protects Your Brain

Vic NapierFollow Jul 1, 2018 · 6 min read

Something I find very interesting is the relationship between brain function and exercise. I don’t mean just the idea that we feel better when we exercise or that our brain works better when our blood is oxygenated. I’m interested in how lifestyle choices can make the brain work better. Things like daily habits that make us more intelligent and creative.

That’s right; our lifestyle has an effect on how smart we are.

Before going, any further let’s pause and review what happens in the brain when we learn something new. I think we all know that our brain consists of neurons — brain cells — with a nucleus in the center and dendrites, stretching like fingers to the dendrites of other neurons. Learning, thinking, remembering — everything we experience — results from one neuron making an electrochemical contact with another.

The more often one neuron stimulates another, the stronger that connections becomes. That is what learning is. Think about learning a physically complex movement, like driving a stick shift automobile.

At first, it seems like an impossible task — 3 pedals, 1 gearshift and a steering wheel, but only two feet and two hands. Give a little gas, let out the clutch slowly and the engine dies. Alternatively, let out the clutch too fast and the car jerks.

With practice, though, you get better and better until you don’t have to give conscious thought to shifting gears.

The more frequently one neuron stimulates another, the stronger that connection becomes. In terms of brain physiology, the more one practices the stronger and more complex the network of neurons controlling that behavior becomes. This is what learning really is — building strong associations between neurons, creating ever-bigger networks of associated neurons.

I learned some very interesting things about my brain when I broke my left foot. After eight weeks in a cast, my calf atrophied, but so had the network of neurons connecting my foot to my brain.

Long after I built back the muscles in my calf, I would occasionally reach for something to my left, and keep right on going because I had no balance on my left foot. That network of neurons in my brain communicating with the nerves and muscles in my foot had atrophied too.

They no longer had strong connections with one another and the complex interaction between sensing balance in my brain and actuating muscles in my foot was lost. My left foot no longer had the ability to balance like my uninjured foot did.

My physical therapist suggested that I go without shoes whenever possible, and I did. Within just a couple of months, I could balance on my left foot for as long as I wanted. The contact with different surfaces — grass, asphalt, gravel — stimulated the sensory neurons on my foot and helped rehabilitate the neural network in my brain.

However, what was actually going on in my brain to allow this to happen? This is where things get interesting.

Most people over thirty probably remember a high school teacher instructing them not to drink alcohol because it destroys neurons, and neurons are not replaceable — you are born with all you will ever have.

It turns out that isn’t true at all. In the 1990’s scientists began identifying classes of proteins in the brain. One was Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) first found in the hippocampus, the memory center of the brain. This discovery drew lot of scientific attention and it was quickly established that BDNF is essential to the development of neural networks — that is, brain structures supporting learning and memory.

The thing that is so astonishing about BDNF is that it actually works on the infrastructure of the brain — physical brain growth and expansion. Put some brain cells in a petri dish suspended in nutrients and not much happens. Add a few drops of BDNF and the neurons start growing dendrites and reaching for one another.

In his fascinating book Spark examining the relationship between exercise and the brain, John Ratey refers to BDNF as “Miracle-Gro for the brain”.

According to Ratey, BDNF sends ions to nerve endings, increasing the electrochemical bond, creating stronger and more robust neural networks. It activates brain receptors that make more BDNF, serotonin and other neuron-chemicals that aid the synapses and dendrites in communicating with one another. In short, BDNF is the driver of brain plasticity.

It gets even better.

Ratey tells us that throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s animal studies proved beyond doubt that exercise and volume of BDNF in the brain correlate with one another. Now, consider this — physical movements are usually associated with learning. We learn by interacting with our world, finding puzzling new things we have not seen before and exploring their properties.

Think of how infants constantly focus their attention on one thing after another. Infants are constantly touching, tasting and feeling the world around them. Learning about the world and physical activity are closely related. Even if we are just moving our eyes, we are physically active. A relationship between physical movement and brain activity supporting learning makes sense.

Finally, in 2007 German researchers found that, people learn vocabulary words 20% faster after exercise than before exercise, and that there is a direct correlation between the rate of learning and levels of BDNF.

However, what is it about exercise that has an effect on the brain? What is the mechanism by which muscle movement assists in memory?

It turns out that when we exercise our muscles produce hormones that have effects on how the brain learns and makes memoires.

Ratey tells us that when we exercise muscles produce a hormone called IGF-1. We have known for some time that IFG-1 assists in delivering glucose to muscles in need of energy, but only recently discovered its role in learning. During exercise, BDNF stimulates uptake of IGF-1 in the brain, activing neurons to produce serotonin and glutamate, two neurotransmitters essential for communication between neurons. At the same time, it increases release of BDNF, enhancing neuro plasticity and the formation of long-term memories.

Another hormone produced in the muscles, VEGF, is essential in producing new blood capillaries and has found some success in naturally building detours around clotted arteries. In the brain, VEGF seems to have an effect on the blood-brain barrier, allowing muscle related hormones to more easily enter the brain.

Finally, FGF-2 helps tissue grow and its role in repairing muscles damaged by exercise is well known. Now we know that FGF-2 is also very active in the brain, assisting with the formation of new brain tissue.

Ratey includes many practical examples of how exercise benefits our brains. He quotes one study in which two groups of over 50 year olds took a memory test following either exercise or watching TV. It is no surprise that the exercise group demonstrated much better recall.

The practical takeaway is that no matter what our age cognitive activity should be interspaced with exercise. Not only is exercise good for our bodies, it is good for our minds as well. The earlier we get in the habit of taking care of our brains when we are young the better it will serve us in old age.

All of this is just touching on the fascinating information Ratey presents in Spark. In it, he explores how exercise can affect depression, anxiety, stress, learning and aging. Using different muscles releases different hormones that affect our brain differently. For instance, animal studies indicate that complex motor skills, the kind developed with dance or balance exercises produced more BDNF than aerobic exercise like running or walking.

Take a walk, jog a little, read a book or learn a language. Your brain needs to serve you for a lifetime and you have to care for it every day.

7 Ways Exercise Makes You Smarter

1. Regular Exercise Boosts Your Decision-Making Skills

Your brain needs oxygen to do its thang, and women who exercise have more oxygen flowing through their brains’ anterior frontal regions (the region involved with both decision making and memory retention), says a new Psychophysiology study finding that women who exercise outperform their peers on difficult cognitive tasks.

2. Sports Make You a Better Map Reader

Having to think through how your body will move through space—whether it’s around your opponents, across a field, or into the air—improves your ability to perform mental rotations (knowing what a certain shape or item would look like if you flipped or rotated it), according to a 2013 review from the Institute of Sport Science at the University of Hildesheim in Germany. This could make you better at reading maps, navigating through congested traffic, and putting together Ikea furniture.

3. Strength Training Strengthens Your Focus

Strength training—granted you’re doing it right—takes a lot of focus. You need to be mindful of your form while ignoring the smelly, grunting guy next to you. That’s why a Journal of Applied Physiology review of more than 100 studies found that the more you perform focused strength workouts, the more you’re able to avoid distractions outside the gym. Take that, noisy cubicle neighbor.

4. Endurance Exercise Helps You Stick with Your Plans

When you hit the road for a long run, you’re not just improving your body’s ability to sustain long, grueling tasks. You’re also training your mind, according to the same Journal of Applied Physiology review. After all, when you’re running or biking for an hour or more, you’re not so much fighting physical fatigue as you’re fighting your mind saying, “Hey, let’s do something else.” The ability to overcome that pull is critical to multitasking on the job and sticking with long-term plans and goals, according to researchers.

5. Sprinting Improves Your Memory

Pick up the pace and become a better learner: In one Neurobiology of Learning and Memory study, people learned vocabulary words 20 percent faster after they performed high-impact sprints than after they completed low-impact running. During high-intensity running, the brain’s levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (a protein that promotes growth and survival of your brain’s nerve cells), dopamine, and epinephrine all increase, which researchers believe may be behind the memory boost.

6. Yoga Helps You Process Info Faster

A single 20-minute bout of yoga improved college students’ ability to quickly and accurately process information, according to a study from the University of Illinois. And get this: It only took 30 minutes for the brain-boosting benefits to kick in.

7. Exercise Helps You Pick Up Your Productivity

When you’re swamped, it can be hard to close your computer and hit the gym. But according to one International Journal of Workplace Health Management study, people are still 23 percent more productive on days they exercise compared to days they don’t. Again, exercise increases the amount of oxygen sent to the brain, increasing your energy and making you sharper.

We all know that regular exercise can have dramatic effects on our physical health, as it helps protect us from preventable diseases, but what about our minds? The effects of physical fitness may extend beyond disease and obesity prevention, potentially impacting our intelligence from before birth well into old age.

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Research on exercise and brain health

For fitness and brain health, the benefits may come early—perhaps as early as in the womb. A 2013 paper made a splash in health media when it claimed active pregnant mothers gave birth to smarter babies.

READ MORE: How much does it cost to have a baby?

A review published in the CDC’s journal Prevention of Chronic Disease indicated that although longer-term and larger trials are needed, aerobic activity in children “is positively associated with cognition, academic achievement, behavior and psychosocial functioning outcomes.”

Some of the benefits of exercise (such as weight loss) come slowly and through repetition. But some research indicates the benefits of exercise on brain health and intelligence could come far more quickly.

One study, published in 2013 in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, found that a single 30-minute session of moderate-intensity exercise could improve memory, planning, and reasoning, and shorten the amount of time needed to complete cognitive tests.

Similar research on 21 young adults identified increases in memory accuracy and recall speed following a half-hour workout, regardless of whether the exercise was aerobic or strength training.

How exercise affects the brain

Attempting to explain how acute exercise delivers these benefits, researchers from the University of Illinois analyzed 20 undergraduates and found a 30-minute treadmill workout increased neuroelectric activity and resulting cognitive functions, like reasoning and problem solving.

READ MORE: What does an MRI cost at your local hospital?

But neuroelectric activity is only part of the answer. Scientists have determined that exercise increases production of beneficial hormones like brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), for example. BDNF boosts communication between brain cells and stimulates the growth and development of blood vessels and neurons in the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for forming and organizing memories.

Several studies have linked exercise and the increased production of BDNF to increased hippocampal volume. The hippocampus, incidentally, shrinks with age and is the region of the brain that suffers the first and most profound damage when someone has Alzheimer’s disease.

Effects of exercise on brain health as we age

Earlier this year, researchers revealed findings that pointed at physical exercise in young adulthood improving cognition later in life. “Better verbal memory and faster psychomotor speed at ages 43 to 55 years were clearly associated with better CRF 25 years earlier,” they concluded.

READ MORE: Scientific ways to get energized, naturally

Researchers with King’s College London collected data on more than 9,000 people and found those who exercised at least once per week performed better on cognitive tests at age 50 than those who did not.

And much of the research indicates you can’t be too late to the party. Physical activity in midlife can reduce the risk of dementia in old age, according to the University of Eastern Finland. And a meta-analysis of 30 randomized control trials found exercise to have cognitive benefits for adults already suffering from dementia.

Shortcomings in the research

As with any growing field of study, the research is varied both in quality and results. Several of these studies involved very small groups of participants; others were limited in time and scope, or relied on participants to self-report their exercise habits. The research on fit pregnant mothers giving birth to smarter babies was criticized because it was promoted before even being accepted into a peer-reviewed journal.

Perhaps the best evidence for exercise and intelligence comes from firsthand experience.

“Working out, for me, allows me to focus on what I need to do and block out distractions,” says LeeAnn Dillon, a fitness competitor and personal trainer from Raleigh, North Carolina, who spends an average of 10 hours in the gym each week when not training for a competition. And as a single mother who recently decided to go back to school, she relies heavily on focus and problem-solving.

People who exercise regularly report being better able to focus and perform on the days they work out; they report less stress and higher energy levels. “I think about… what bill needs to be paid, what my sons need, even the decision to go back to school while I’m working out,” Dillon says. “And in addition to giving me better focus, it gives me the confidence to take on new challenges.”

Elizabeth Renter writes for NerdWallet Health, a website that helps people reduce their medical bills.

Nick Veasey/Getty Images

Allow a laboratory mouse to run as much as it likes, and its brainpower improves. Force it to run harder than it otherwise might, and its thinking improves even more. This is the finding of an experiment led by researchers at National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan and placed online in May.

In the study, scientists had two groups of mice swim a water maze and in a separate trial had them endure an unpleasant stimulus to see how quickly they would learn to move away from it. For the next four weeks they allowed one group of mice to run inside their rodent wheels, an activity most mice enjoy, while requiring the other group to push harder on minitreadmills at a speed and duration controlled by the scientists. They then tested both groups again to track their learning skills and memory. Both groups of mice performed admirably in the water maze, bettering their performances from the earlier trial. But only the treadmill runners were better in the avoidance task, a skill that, according to brain scientists, demands a more complicated cognitive response.

The mice who raced on the treadmills showed evidence of molecular changes in several portions of their brains when viewed under a microscope, while the voluntary wheel-runners had changes in only one area. “Our results support the notion that different forms of exercise induce neuroplasticity changes in different brain regions,” Chauying J. Jen, a professor of physiology and an author of the study, says.

For some time, researchers have known that exercise changes the structure of the brain and affects thinking. Ten years ago scientists at the Salk Institute in California published the groundbreaking finding that exercise stimulates the creation of new brain cells. But fundamental questions remain, like whether exercise must be strenuous to be beneficial. Should it be aerobic? What about weight lifting? And are the cognitive improvements permanent or fleeting?

Other recent studies provide some preliminary answers. In an experiment published in the journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, 21 students at the University of Illinois were asked to memorize a string of letters and then pick them out from a list flashed at them. Then they were asked to do one of three things for 30 minutes — sit quietly, run on a treadmill or lift weights — before performing the letter test again. After an additional 30-minute cool down, they were tested once more. On subsequent days, the students returned to try the other two options. The students were noticeably quicker and more accurate on the retest after they ran compared with the other two options, and they continued to perform better when tested after the cool down. “There seems to be something different about aerobic exercise,” Charles Hillman, an associate professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Illinois and an author of the study, says.

Similarly, in other work by scientists at the University of Illinois, elderly people were assigned a six-month program of either stretching exercises or brisk walking. The stretchers increased their flexibility but did not improve on tests of cognition. The brisk walkers did.

Why should exercise need to be aerobic to affect the brain? “It appears that various growth factors must be carried from the periphery of the body into the brain to start a molecular cascade there,” creating new neurons and brain connections, says Henriette van Praag, an investigator in the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging. For that to happen, “you need a fairly dramatic change in blood flow,” like the one that occurs when you run or cycle or swim. Weight lifting, on the other hand, stimulates the production of “growth factors in the muscles that stay in the muscles and aren’t transported to the brain,” van Praag says.

What then of the Taiwanese mice, all of which ran? According to the investigators, mice on a running wheel “usually show little improvements in the conventionally defined” measurements of fitness, like elevated muscle strength and improved aerobic capacity. They enjoy themselves; they don’t strain. Those on the treadmill, meanwhile, are forced to pant and puff. Jen says researchers suspect that treadmill running is more intense and leads to improvements in “muscle aerobic capacity,” and this increased aerobic capacity, in turn, affects the brain more than the wheel jogging.

Does this mean we should relinquish control of our workouts to a demanding coach? Jen cautions against assuming human bodies work exactly like those of rats. But there are lessons from his work. “It would be fair to say that any form of regular exercise,” he says, if it is aerobic, “should be able to maintain or even increase our brain functions.”

(Last Updated On: March 5, 2018)

We all know that regular exercise is good for your body, but there is a growing body of evidence that physical activity is also good for your brain. In recent years, a number of studies with both animal and human participants have demonstrated that exercise improves the ability to remember and learn. But does exercise make you smarter?

Michelle Finn had just recently given birth to her second child and she was feeling lethargic and unfit. While she may have started a 5-times-a-week workout regimen to get her body back into shape, she began to notice an unexpected benefit within just a few weeks.

“It was like a fog had lifted,” she explained. “I had more energy and just felt more mentally ‘with it.’”

Would you pick up those weights to lace up those gym shoes more often if you knew that exercise might actually make you smarter? The next time you need a boost of motivation to drag yourself out of bed and head to the gym, just remember that you’re not just trimming your waistline; you’re revving up your brain as well.

Aerobic Fitness Can Boost Learning, Especially on Challenging Material

So does exercise make you smarter? Some recent research suggests that regular physical activity does have an impact on how well people learn.

Researchers in one study looked at children who were rated as either high-fitness or low-fitness. The children were asked to memorize names and locations on a fictional map, either by studying the material or by being tested on the information as they studied. The study revealed that kids who had scored high on a test of aerobic fitness performed better on a memory test than kids who scored low on aerobic fitness.

Previous research had suggested that a combination of testing and study improved recall and was less challenging than simply studying the material. Surprisingly, it was the more challenging task of studying without testing that led to better scores in the high-fitness group.

What accounts for this difference? The researchers suggested that aerobic fitness was the key.

Better physical fitness could lead to improved memory and learning in children, they suggested, particularly when it comes to challenging material. The findings, they also noted, suggest that cutting physical education programs in schools might have the unintended consequence of harming learning potential among kids.

Exercise Helps Grow New Brain Cells

Experts suggest that cardio exercise not only gives learning an important boost, it also causes real changes inside the brain by promoting cell growth, regulating moods, and triggering the release of hormones including dopamine, serotonin, and norephinepherine. These hormones have a range of effects from improving attention, increasing arousal levels, and even sharpening perception.

Numerous studies have revealed that exercise can aid in the creation of new brain cells and new neural connections. Animal research has shown that even moderate exercise helps activate neurons in the brain’s hippocampus, a region that plays an important role in memory.

In one of the earliest studies on the impact of exercise on the brain, researchers from the Salk Institute found that exercise indeed led to brain cell growth. The results were considered particularly surprising at that time because many experts had long believed that adult neurogenesis was either not possible or exceedingly rare. In the series of groundbreaking experiments, the researchers found that mice that ran several miles each night experienced far more brain cell growth in the hippcampal region than did sedentary mice;. They also performed much better on memory tests.

When Is the Best Time to Exercise?

One study had participants learn a new motor skill under three different conditions. Some remained sedentary, some learned the skill right after a workout, and others learned the skill and then worked out immediately afterwards.

Which group learned best?

In a follow up assessment one-hour later, those who had exercised either before or after the learning activity were at a clear advantage, but those who worked out just after learning performed the best.

The researchers suggest that one session of intense exercise immediately after a motor task can help cement the information about that motor skill into long-term memory.

What Type of Exercise Is Best?

There are many questions that still need to be answered about exactly how exercise benefits the brain. Do certain types of exercise work best for certain types of learning? Which type of exercise offers the greatest benefits? While such questions remain unanswered, researchers have found that different types of exercise may impact the brain in different ways.

Most of the evidence suggests that cardio exercise offers the greatest memory-boosting and learning-enhancement benefits, but there is also evidence that strength training can benefit the brain as well.

Researchers have also found that moderate exercise such as walking and lifting weights can help stave off memory problems associated with the aging process. One study even found that older adults who had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor to dementia and Alzheimer’s, showed improvements in both memory and language skills after following an exercise program consisting of two 90-minute sessions of aerobics, strength training, and balance exercise each week for a year.

So next time you need some motivation to get up and get some exercise, consider some of the following findings:

  • Studies have shown that aerobic activities such as running has been shown to increase neurogenesis and improve the chances that those newly formed cells with survive and thrive.
  • One study found that children who participated in regular aerobic exercise showed nearly a 4-point increase on cognitive tests, while those who did not exercise showed no such improvement.
  • Children who are fitter have a bigger hippocampus and perform better on memory tests than their less physically-fit peers.

For Michelle Finn, the benefits from her exercise routine are incalculable.

“I feel more alert, more energetic, and more capable of keeping up with my kids,” she explains. “You know, I started working out to lose the last bit of extra baby weight, but I feel like I’ve transformed my mind just as much as my body.”

Exercise makes you smarter

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