Notice the title does NOT say it’s smart to exercise.
It is, but that’s nothing new.
Science is now proving that cardiovascular exercise improves your brain, making you smarter.
(NOTE: other types of exercise, such as resistance training, haven’t been studied yet, so in this article, “exercise” means cardio. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get all the healthy exercise you can.)
Up-And-Coming Neuroscientists Spend Lots of Time Writing Grant Proposals
One day while writing a grant proposal, Dr. Suzuki noticed something new about how well she wrote. It both pleased her, and was interesting.
Other scientists might have just smiled and continued writing away, but she’s a prominent neuroscientist.
She’s not only supposed to write grant proposals, she’s supposed to know about things such as how the brain works to write grant proposals.
That day she noticed that she’d recently been focusing more deeply, for longer periods of time – and more easily remembering critical details.
So, she stopped and paid attention – and asked herself why. What changed?
The only difference in her life over the last year or so was – exercise.
Like many people, she’d gotten out of shape, and then began going to the gym, working out and attending exercise classes.
She was happy she’d lost the 25 pounds of extra weight, but she didn’t expect her brain to function better too.
She had to ask herself whether she was an unusual case, or did exercise improve everybody’s brain?
As a neuroscientist, she began running experiments to find out.
Most of us don’t write grant proposals. But students write papers. Managers write reports. All of us need to process a lot of information just to keep up with our careers, the technologies available to us, and how the world is changing.
How does exercise make our brains work better?
You Need Your Hippocampus to Learn, Remember and Create
It’s the part of your brain that’s deep within the temporal lobe. Decades ago, when doctors removed one patient’s entire hippocampus, he lost all ability to form new memories.
Part of the job of the hippocampus is to tie things together. That is, it anchors your memories, so you know you are you. It connects memories of the past and thoughts of the future to the present.
And so it associates new experiences and learnings with what’s already in your memory.
Exercise Increases the Number of Neurochemicals in Your Hippocampus
With exercise, your hippocampus enjoys having more serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline.
Exercise also increases brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF). BDNF increases the growth of cells in the hippocampus, so it gets larger over time.
The Three Benefits of a Single Aerobic Workout
Dr. Suzuki found these in subjects after 30-45 minutes of age-appropriate exercise:
1. Enhanced mood.
In the end, maybe you think you feel better just because it’s over. But, the truth is, you do feel better.
Regardless of age, after 30-45 minutes of exercise, everybody received lower scores on psychological tests measuring anxiety, depression and hostility.
2. Improved pre-frontal function.
This is measured by both the Stroop test, a challenging procedure in which you have to shift attention and focus, and the Eriksen flanker task – which also forces you to concentrate on letters.
And older subjects demonstrated MORE improvement in pre-frontal function than the younger adults.
3. Reductions in reaction time.
That is, you can take in – and process – information faster than before.
Plus, they all reported feeling more energy.
Dr. Suzuki found the above in subjects ranging from age ’20s to ’90s.
And, she found these improvements lasted at least two hours after completion of the workout.
Therefore, if your schedule allows, it’s best to exercise in the morning, before your day’s work.
And, if your schedule allows, it’s best to perform this exercise daily. Therefore, we’re not talking about pushing yourself so hard you need more than one day to recover, as with high-intensity interval training.
Just a short, moderate workout that gets you out of breath and makes your heart beat more quickly.
If all you can do daily is a 10-minute walk, walk for ten minutes every day. Dr. Suzuki says that’s the least amount of exercise you need to get positive results.
Neurogenesis in Humans Remains Controversial
That’s the birth of brand new neurons in our brains.
Studies have proven that rats who spend lots of time running in wheels do grow new brain cells.
But this of course is much more difficult to study in people because it requires direct examination of the brain.
Therefore, Rusty Gage at the Salk Institute used terminally ill patients who agreed to allow the scientists to dissect their brains after they died. For the experiment, in their final months of life, they exercised. Gage found evidence these people – despite their terminal illnesses and, in most cases, advanced age – did grow new brain cells.
Although neuroscientists still don’t all agree, there’ve been other studies showing neurogenesis even into the 9th decade of life.
The Best Brain Benefits Happen Over Time
As you pump more blood to your brain every day, day after day, for weeks, months and years . . . the capillaries grow, bringing your brain cells even more nutrients.
Exercise allows your brain to have more plasticity, meaning it’s better able to learn and perform. One day is great, but every day keeps your neurons better able to change and adapt, to keep learning and remembering.
Therefore, with the consistency of effort, the benefits of daily exercise are amplified.
Another Benefit of Regular Exercise
Once Dr. Suzuki’s subjects felt its effects, they didn’t want to stop.
You can start with just a 10-minute walk.
As Dr. Suzuki says, “Every drop of sweat counts.”