What’s fun, exhilarating, and proven to make you smarter? Try just about any activity that gets your heart pumping. Contrary to popular belief, and much to the dismay of brain teaser game manufacturers, the value of mental-training games is speculative at best. It’s exercise that enhances cognitive flexibility and builds a brain that resists physical shrinkage. According to the latest findings in the field of neuroscience, exercise is more effective at boosting thinking than thinking is.
Although enriched environments have long been touted for their role in enhancing cognitive prowess, we’ve only recently learned that what really makes a difference in these scenarios is increased heart rate and physical activity. Any other environmental embellishments are just that. Of course, that is not to say that the staples of proper nutrition, positive social interactions, and a safe, healthy environment are not essential for proper brain functioning. What these findings do imply is that given a proper foundation, no number of fancy toys, colorful walls, or educational movies will leave a complex and lasting improvement in brainpower like that spurred by exercise.
Why does exercise do more for our brain than thinking does?
The answer to this question lies in our physiology. Like all muscles and organs, the brain experiences physical atrophy and functional declines with increasing age. Starting in our late twenties, most humans lose about 1% of hippocampal volume per year. As the hippocampus is the brain area implicated in memory and certain types of learning, it’s easy to see how this decline can become increasingly problematic in later life.
The good news is that researchers have recently uncovered a long-standing error in our understanding of the human brain. Until the 1990s scientists believed that humans were born with a certain number of brain cells and could never create more. However, advancements in technology have allowed researches to observe neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons, in the adult human brain. Studies have found the most prevalent concentrations of new cells in the hippocampus, indicating that the aforementioned 1% annual decline in hippocampal volume can not only be halted, but that it can be reversed.
New cells do not indicate increases in intellect.
The creation of new brain cells is not enough to make you smarter. That is where exercise comes in. The only way that new brain cells can improve intellect is by linking up with the existing neural network by way of synaptic connections. Learning something is one way by which brain cells can join the network. However, brain cells that get looped in through non-physically taxing learning experiences are severely limited in what they can do. In fact, these non-physically acquired new cells only become re-activated when performing the task during which they were created. This means that these cells lacked a versatility that would make them useful in other applications. In contrast, neurons acquired through exercise are capable of re-engaging under highly varying conditions and circumstances. In one study where rats learned to navigate a water maze, a task that is not physically exerting, the newly formed brain cells were only activated during repetitions of the maze and not other cognitive tasks. These neurons were thus only applicable to the specific scenario during which they were gained and unable to be utilized in other endeavors. Therefore, the learning encoded in those cells does not appear to transfer to other types of thinking.
Research on exercise, and especially cardiovascular workouts like running on a treadmill, suggests that workouts create new brain cells that, unlike the cells created during stagnant activities, are capable of multi-tasking and are readily wired into the neural network. If they are gained by means of treadmill, these brain cells will not only be re-activated while running, but will also be capable of being used towards other cognitive undertakings, such as exploring new environments or solving calculus problems. Studies show that walking briskly for an average of 3 hours, 3 times a week can halt and even reverse the brain atrophy experienced by aging humans. So, whether you’re jogging mountain trails, or grading papers on the elliptical, you can feel satisfied knowing you’re triggering biochemical changes that will leave a lasting impact on your mental prowess.
Dagmara Mach is a traveler, yogi, and freelance writer. Currently based in Big Sky, Montana, she’s exploring the wilderness and looking forward to a snow-filled winter. Combining her education in psychology, statistics, and
marketing, Dagmara strives to promote rationalism, education, and healthy lifestyles. She contributed this post on behalf of exercise equipment retailer Fitness Blowout, to better connect them with the health-conscious community.