It's widely understood that exercising at the gym will help improve strength, speed, endurance, and an overall level of physical fitness, but what many people do not realize is that exercise actually also helps your brain. That's right—exercise can make you smarter. In fact, while scientists can only speculate that mental games like puzzles can improve general intelligence, new findings show that working out improves the overall mental capacity of your brain. So a jog around the block might be more beneficial to your brain than an afternoon spent doing the newspaper's crossword puzzle!
Learning From Mice
One particular study that supports the extreme benefits of exercise for a healthy, smarter brain was led by researcher Justin S. Rhodes, a professor at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois. Rhodes' team studied mice and how exercise (in this case, a running wheel) impacted their intelligence. For the study, the mice were put into four different groups. One group had all of the delicious cheeses, mice toys, and comfortable beds that a little mouse's heart could desire. A second group had the same luxuries, plus a running wheel. The third (unlucky) group had no toys and bland food and a fourth group also had no toys and bland food, but were given running wheels.
After several months, when given a serious of intelligence tests, it was found that toys, food, and comfort had no impact on intelligence, but simply having a running wheel resulted in much smarter mice.
The Brain Is Like A Muscle
After reaching a certain age (typically mid-late 20s), one's body will begin to naturally deteriorate without exercise. The brain is similar in that once a person reaches his or her late 20s, it begins to decay as parts of the brain related to learning and memory are lost, as the hippocampus, part of the brain, decreases in size.
However, exercise appears to help prevent this type of brain decay and even reverse it. It is a common misconception that people are born with a certain number of brain cells and cannot create new, additional cells. The hippocampus (where most of the brain decay occurs as one ages) can generate new cells. This generation of new cells is called neurogenesis and it occurs as a result of exercise. Remember the mice from Rhodes' study? Those who ran on wheels had roughly two times as many new brain cells as those who didn't run.
Another interesting thing about neurons (cells) formed as a result of exercise is that these cells have an easy time being used for different tasks. If a person does Sudoku puzzles every day, he or she will become better at doing Sudoku puzzles, but the new cells created won't necessarily assist in other tasks. In contrast, neurons created from exercise will be able to help one improve in many areas.
How Does Exercise Make Us Smarter?
The truth is, scientists do not yet understand exactly how the brain is impacted by exercise. Some studies indicate that working out encourages brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF).
BDNF is a protein found in the brain. This protein can strengthen individual cells and make the connections between different cells more powerful. It can also help with neurogenesis, creating new cells in the brain. Overall, increasing BDNF means increasing the quantity and strength of cells; thus, increasing intelligence. So, if working out has such a BDNF-increasing affect, it explains why exercise makes us smarter.
It is not known if certain types of exercise are better than others for increasing intelligence. What's important to realize is that when you're running on the treadmill or doing bicep curls, you're not just making your body stronger—you're also improving your brain. Exercise initiates neurogenesis and newer cells means greater intelligence. In a recent study, scientists found that a group of elderly men and women were able to slow mental decline and even reinvigorate their minds by exercising only a little bit—in this case, they were instructed to follow simple walking programs. The bottom line: For a healthier brain, exercise is of extreme importance and can jump-start neurogenesis, making you smarter.