Can Exercise Make You Smarter?

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Can Exercise Make You Smarter?

You have the power to change your brain. All you have to do is lace up your running shoes  – Dr John Ratey, Spark –

We all want to be more productive. Some keep a to-do list, manage a calendar, remove needless distractions or get a good night sleep. Yet here’s a productivity secret that most people have never considered – the power of exercise for improving the performance of the brain.

As a physiotherapist, I’ve spent a lot of my life studying and promoting the benefits of exercise. Exercise makes you stronger. Fitter. Faster. It slows down the progression of most chronic diseases and helps you live longer. Activity is good for the body. Yet until recently, I didn’t know how important it was for forming a healthy brain.

In the last 10 years, my thinking has expanded and changed, influenced by new research. Neuroscientists are now very interested in exercise. So are psychiatrists. This is because a bunch of recent studies show that exercise directly and significantly changes our brain. It readies us to learn. It helps us focus, create, concentrate and remain alert. It helps us cope with stress. It primes us to be productive.

Here’s what we know about the science of exercise and the brain:

1. Exercise regenerates your brain

The brain is ‘plastic’ and continues to grow and change throughout life. Exercise unleashes a bunch of proteins called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factors) to fertilise the brain and make it grow. Dr John Ratey[1] calls this protein ‘Miracle-Gro’ for the brain, because it stimulates brain cells to grow by the thousands.

Need more brain cells and a healthier brain? Just start exercising regularly.

2. Exercise helps you to learn faster

Neural Synapse Med Pic

Learning occurs when nerve cells in the brain bind to one another. Exercise prepares and primes these cells to connect and therefore improves learning. For example, a German study found that people learn new words twenty per cent faster following intense exercise than without exercise[2].

Need to remember something quickly? Then walk in the park before you sit down to study.

3. Exercise makes you more alert, attentive and motivated

Exercise increases oxygen flow into the brain, which reduces brain-bound free radicals. When you increase oxygen, you increase mental sharpness[3]. A 2007 experiment showed that people significantly improved their mental dexterity and creative thinking by running on a treadmill for 35 minutes at 60 per cent of their maximum heart rate[4].

Need to think like Einstein at your next strategic meeting? Then go to the gym at lunchtime before you start.

Keep moving!

The brain is an amazing organ. Like a muscle, it continually changes, remodels and reshapes based on how we use our bodies. So if you want to be more alert, learn faster, think more clearly, be creative and generally more productive, jump on your bike and get moving!

Next post – 3 Ways To Switch Your Brain Into A Higher Gear!

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Ratey, J. and Hagerman, E. (2009). Spark: How exercise will improve the performance of your brain. Quercus, London.
  2. Winter, B., et al. (2007). High impact running improves learning. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 87: 597-609.
  3. Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home and school. Pear Press, Seattle.
  4. Winter, B., et al. (2007). High impact running improves learning. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 87: 597-609.
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