Exercise Your Brain

Posted: Mar 29, 2007 2:04 PM
It's not your father's exercise routine anymore.

Forget the fit body _ what about a fit brain?

New research is suggesting that whatever exercise does for one's physique, there's a benefit we're understanding only now: exercise makes us smarter.

This isn't just about exercise making us feel perkier and better able to focus. This is about the brain performing at a higher, better level, over time, in people who work their bodies.

So Newsweek just revealed in "Stronger, Faster, Smarter" by Mary Carmichael. She looked at the work of researchers like Dr. Charles Hillman, a neuroscientist at the University of Illinois. He and other scientists are discovering that brawn leads to the brain. And so in a study of grade-school students, for instance, he found that the most fit kids also did the best on statewide standardized tests, "even when factors such as socioeconomic status were taken into account."

Just a few weeks ago, "researchers announced that they had coaxed the human brain into growing new nerve cells, a process that for decades had been thought impossible, simply by putting subjects on a three-month aerobic-workout regimen." There are also growing indications that physical activity can stave off Alzheimer's disease.

We've known for a long time that exercise sends blood to the brain, and that has benefits. What's new? Well, as Carmichael lays it out, a lot. There's new understanding that a chemical that's produced with exercise, BDNF, "fuels almost all the activities that lead to higher thought." Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey calls the molecule "Miracle-Gro for the brain." Conversely, a brain that's low on the Miracle-Gro "shuts itself off to new information," as Newsweek put it.

Unfortunately, the kind of exercise I do _ intense, slow weightlifting _ may be great for strengthening thighs, but unfortunately it isn't the most helpful for the brain, and no one knows why. Does running after four kids count? But at least it's something.

Believe me, I'd drive myself to the bathroom if I could. Let's just say that given how often I can't seem to recall a name or find my car keys, I shudder to think where I'd be if I didn't exercise at all.

Anyway, it's the research on kids that really intrigues me. There, exercise probably has "a more long-lasting effect on brains that are still developing," one expert explained.

As Hillman told me, there are clearly implications here for kids with conditions like ADHD for whom exercise, whether or not it's combined with medication, can be especially useful in helping the brain overcome what may be abnormal wiring.

But this also has implications for the average youngster, for whom recess has been curtailed and playtime has too often been replaced by videogame time in recent years.

Perhaps, Hillman speculated to me, it may just be that we were designed for the physical and the mental to profoundly work together and reinforce each other. That it's such a part of our make-up that when the former is thrown off because of a modern sedentary lifestyle, it deeply subverts the latter in ways we are only now beginning to understand.

Of course, Bill Gates and his cohorts who changed the world were the product of a generation that probably "sits around" more than any other in history. An irony? Well maybe there isn't a paradox. Maybe we should just imagine what that generation could do if they were all in shape!

The bottom line, so to speak, is that in an age of obesity and desk jobs and kids parked in front of videogames, it's worth reflecting on the incredible value, to the brain and the body, of just regularly going out and taking a fast walk. Or, maybe doing what my mom used to: kicking her five kids outside and saying, "Go play until I let you back in."