By Dave Osh, Creator of Anti-Aging Fitness
Have you always thought that athletes were less intelligent? Well, hold on to your hat… more and more research supports the idea that the brains of exercisers function better.
This is not new. Researchers have known for years that the brains of exercisers were more active and pliable in later life. Many recent studies take this a step further.
In one such study, Charles Hillman, a professor at the University of Illinois, noticed that over and over the women in his classes that were on the cross-country team consistently scored higher on his exams. Hillman wondered about the possible fitness-brain power connection. So, he designed a study.
He and his team studied 259 third and fourth graders (8 – 11 years old). The students were measured for physical fitness levels (BMI, flexibility, cardio fitness, etc.). The fitness levels were then checked against their math and reading scores on the statewide Standardized Test.
Sure enough, the fittest kids did the best on these tests. The ones with the fittest bodies had the fittest brains, even with factors such as socioeconomic level taken into account.
This is just one of the many studies proving the sound mind in a sound body anecdote. With new equipment and methods scientists are able to look for the processes… the how of exercise's effect on cognition. There is more evidence and understanding of the complexities of the mind-body connection.
It all starts in the muscles. Every time a muscle contracts it releases a protein called IGF-1 into the blood. This protein travels into the brain itself and initiates the release of several chemicals one of which is brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF fuels almost all the activities leading to higher cognition.
Not only that, but regular exercise causes the body to build up levels of BDNF. The brain's nerve cells branch out and start communicating with one another in new and different ways! In other words, the brain is learning new things. High BDNF = learning. Low BDNF = the brain closes off new learning. Cool!
As adults, most people keep a relatively constant level of BDNF. As we age, individual neurons start to die off. Scientists used to think this was a permanent loss but in the last decade this belief has changed to thinking that parts of the brain can be "re-grown". Exercise is a catalyst. The part of the brain that seems to be most affected by exercise induced growth is the hippocampus, a memory and learning region.
In another study, Professor Author Kramer of the University of Illinois, scanned the frontal lobes of exercisers and found that those areas were affected by exercise too. The frontal lobes are the "higher" thought areas that help with multitasking, decision-making and such.
In addition to BDNF production, exercise creates blood flow to the brain. Just like other parts of the body, regularly increased blood flow grows new capillaries. In the brain where you have new nerve cells, new capillaries grow to supply the blood.
Of course, the above "neurogenesis" happens with regular exercise. If you are already active, you know that after a hard workout, your brain focus is better and you are calmer. This is the endorphin effect or runner's high that people talk about. The effects of exercise on the brain are immediate and, if maintained, long-lasting.