How Exercise Makes You Smarter
Exercise is not just good for your body, it can be one of the best moves to increase neuroplasticity.
To boost your brain, you also need to boost your body.
As I explained in my previous article, for optimal brain power you need to increase your brain's neuroplasticity--your brain's ability to grow and expand. One way science has shown you can do this is with regular exercise.
Research linking exercise and neuroplasticity continues to evolve. Many studies are either animal based, have small sizes, or focus on older adults that are at risk for memory and cognitive conditions like dementia and Alzheimer's. Still, initial findings continue to point toward regular exercise as a great workout for your mind.
What goes on in the brain when you exercise?
Working out appears to stimulate the hippocampus, the brain region associated with learning and memory. A recent study found that rats doing six to eight weeks of aerobic exercise had between two and three times more hippocampus neurons compared with rats that did no training.
A study in the journal Experimental Brain Research suggests just 30 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise reduces GABA, the main inhibitory neurotransmitter, so the brain can better undergo neuroplasticity.
Exercise also can increase production of something called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is what allows neurons to connect and combine into new brain networks. The more BDNF available, the more neural network formation can take place.
Put in the time and effort
Guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week. This breaks down to 30 minutes to an hour, three to five days a week.
What type of exercise is best? The one you enjoy doing. (Mine is yoga.) Research has found that both aerobic and resistance exercise are beneficial (although aerobic tends to have an edge). But exercise only works if you do it, so choose something that you enjoy doing. Otherwise, hitting that magic 150 minutes per week will feel daunting.
If you need some inspiration, or are looking for something different to try, here are three activities that can work out your brain and are fun to do.
Dancing. A study explored how an 18-month dance training program and 18 months of endurance and flexibility training might improve hippocampal volume in older adults aged 63 to 80 years. Both groups had increases in hippocampal volume, yet the dance group also had increases in brain regions linked with neuroplasticity. So the next time you go to the gym, instead of hitting the treadmill, think about going to a Zumba class instead. Or better yet, invite your partner or friend to go salsa dancing every Saturday night at your local dance hall.
Yoga. A recent study of people who participated in a three-month yoga retreat showed that the practice positively impacted BDNF signaling, which helps create new brain networks. Another studyexhibited an association between a regular yoga practice and larger hippocampus volume. This means the more you practice, the greater the benefit to your overall learning and memory skills. I for one know that when I practice yoga it's easier for me to come up with new creative ideas at work, learn new concepts, and generally get more done.
Tai Chi. Tai chi is a mind-body exercise that involves performing a series of slow-moving movements that focus on improving balance, body alignment, and concentration. One study found that people with Parkinson's disease-- a type of movement disorder that happens when nerve cells in the brain don't produce enough of the brain chemical dopamine--benefited greatly from doing tai chi. The study showed that people with the disease who did two hour-long tai chi season for 24 weeks had better posture, stability, and fewer falls compared with those who did only resistant exercise or stretching routines. The link with neuroplasticity? Initial research suggests that exercise may help brain cells use existing dopamine more efficiently as well as improve how brain cells receive dopamine signals.
The next time you're looking to boost your brain power in business, instead of pouring yourself another cup of coffee, go exercise instead. Turn exercise into a can't-live-without habit by stepping away from life for 30 minutes or so every day to do something you enjoy. So put on your workout clothes, lace up your running (or dancing shoes) and get moving. Your body will be better for it as will your brain.