Monday, September 15, 2014

The Best Reason To Exercise: It Makes You Smart!

Exercise makes a smarter you

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Physical activity may be the most tangible and proven method to improve our quality of life, mood, and intelligence.

It can help us be more productive, do better at school, improve symptoms of depression and anxiety, increase our brain size, improve IQ, prevent and treat neurodegenerative diseases, manage body weight and health, increase bone density, and overall make you a more kick-ass individual.

Physical activity and exercise have profound benefits that can enrich every individual's life. If you were thinking about doing it consistently, here are more reasons why you should start and never stop. If you are one who actively avoids it because you believe the benefits are minuscule, please reconsider.

The Evolutionary Narrative

Our brain is about three times the size that it should be in comparison to our relative size. How we outpaced our primate cousins and other mammals isn't just the evolution of meat eating and cooking, it was the hunt itself that propelled our brain to another level. To hunt better, we needed to hunt in groups, we needed to communicate and socially interact, we had to put the group ahead of ourselves for survival, and thinking patterns had to grow to greater complexity than just graze and sleep.

This was initially all driven by physical activity and athleticism. The most fit were the best hunters, and since we didn't have the attributes of other predators, we relied on endurance hunting. We outlasted our prey.

We began evolving, passing down the best physical traits, eventually our early ancestors had enough growth factor in the body which stimulated brain growth. There was no turning back from there.

In lab mice, the mice that were bred for athleticism and endurance also became smarter. Animals with more physical capacity tended to have a larger brain volume in comparison to relative size.

Being athletic (efficient) allowed these humans to conserve more energy for the brain, which stimulated growth, which allowed for better reasoning, thinking, creating hunting tools, and an ability to track prey. This made these humans the most successful, which in turn made them stronger, which in turn made them smarter, which in turn required more fuel to feed the brain and body, the only fuel source with that much energy was meat, and later on cooked meat. This required better hunting success, which needed more brawn, which created more brains, which required more fuel, which required more hunting, and thus was the cycle which created our giant human brain.

Exercise Rewards The Brain

From the release of feel good dopamine that runners to fitness enthusiasts enjoy, to its healing powers to treat depression and anxiety. Exercise is the first intervention most clinicians recommend prior to the use of antidepressants. In a sixteen week trial, exercise has proven to be just as effective as SSRI sertraline (Zoloft).

Researchers tracked over 8,000 people for twenty six years and found those who were sedentary were 1.5 times more likely to develop depression and anxiety than those who were active.

A 1999 study of over 3.400 people found that those who exercised at least two to three times a week were significantly less stressed, angry, and distrusting than those who exercised less or not at all.

A 2006 study of 19,288 participants showed that those who consistently exercised were less anxious, depressed, neurotic, and socially isolated than their sedentary counterparts.

A Smarter Body Includes The Brain

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) seems to be the key player in improving the brain. Exercise boosts BDNF production, increasing cognitive function while at the same time lessening symptoms of neurological diseases such as depression, stroke, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's disease.

For many years neurogenesis, the building of new brain cells was considered just theoretical. In 2007 researchers at Columbia University provided evidence that exercise increased neurogenesis. Building the body is building the brain.

Even moderate exercise can increase brain volume. A research study with participants 55 to 80 years of age, found that walking around a track for 40 minutes three times a week for a year increased their hippocampus (the memory and spatial reasoning center of the brain). Unfortunately not all exercise is created equal, though stretching has plenty of benefits such as injury prevention, those only assigned a stretching routine showed no brain growth. Something to consider when selecting exercise.

Just being outside, especially around nature is shown to be beneficial to the brain. We need sensory stimulation and being outside plus activity is a proven brain hack. From avid runners, hikers, mountaineers, to surfers, many claim the mental benefits of their activity. Science is proving they are right.

The Brain Needs Oxygen And Energy

Physical fitness means more efficient utilization of oxygen and energy, especially to the brain. In a study of 9 - 10 year olds, MRI data showed physically fit children tended to have brains 12% larger than their peers. The larger brain meant better relational memory: the ability to remember, learn, and integrate various types of information. In relational memory tests, the better conditioned children outperformed their peers and scored 30% higher overall on all academic tests, especially math and science.

Physical activity enhances cognitive development. In elementary school students, 40 minutes of daily exercise increased IQ by 3.8 points. Fit eighteen year olds were more likely to go off to college.

Just three months of exercise can increase blood flow to the part of your brain in charge of memory and learning by 30%.

A 2007 German study found that learning improved by 20% following exercise than prior.

Running on a treadmill for 35 minutes at 60 - 70% of maximal heart rate improved cognitive flexibility: the ability to shift thinking and produce creative thoughts.

Productivity And Leadership

In The 4-Hour Body, billionaire mogul Richard Branson explained the best way to increase productivity was through exercise; whether in personal or work life. Richard Branson is known to take everyone in his boardroom down to the gym to exercise if he finds a meeting to be less than productive. His reasoning is, exercise is instant productivity. You are doing something and it is leading somewhere; once that inertia is started, ideas begin to flow and they head back to the boardroom to maintain the momentum.

A 2004 English study of 210 participants found that workers who exercised before work or on their lunch breaks were less stressed on days they exercised, interacted with colleagues better, met deadlines, managed their times better, and overall felt better about work and had more energy even though they expended energy exercising.

Exercise did not decrease energy, in fact it increased it. A known positive side effect of exercise. A fit employee is 15% more productive than average. They can get 13.8 months of work done in a year! The extremely out of shape loses a month's worth of productivity in a year.

Not only productivity, exercise increases discipline, confidence, self esteem, goal setting and achievement, and creates a strong will. It is a habit of most strong leaders.

The Takeaway

Some form of exercise daily makes you smarter, happier, and better. It doesn't have to be intense every time and it doesn't have to be the same thing. It can be classes, martial arts, weights, cardio, personal training, or even a nature walk.

The important things to include in your activity list:

  • Move a lot, get some form of aerobic activity daily.
  • Switch it up, don't do the same thing. Your brain needs stimulation. Challenge yourself and try new things.
  • Go outside, get some sun, get some air, see nature.
  • Build your brawn, it means more growth factor and better oxygen utilization.
  • The sooner you start, the better.
  • Don't stop, make it a habit, the older you are the more important it is.
  • It doesn't have to be long or intense, just consistent.

If you're interested in more information about the connection between exercise and the brain, I recommend Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey, MD of Harvard Medical School.

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain
The 4-Hour Body


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