It’s not uncommon these days to hear pop psychologists, fitness gurus, and even serious scientists claim that exercise helps us think better. There is some connection, it is asserted, between physical exercise and the brain. Now, we are beginning to understand this connection, which supports the notion that exercise actually helps us to think better.
A recent article in the New York Times, “How Exercise Benefits the Brain,” Gretchen Reynolds reviews recent scientific studies that demonstrate the connection between physical exercise and thinking. In one of these studies, people were given a memory test. Then, half of the subjects vegged out, while the other half engaged in strenuous exercise. Then they took the test again. Those who had exercised did markedly better on the latter test.
What might explain this result?
Meanwhile, blood samples taken throughout the experiment offered a biological explanation for the boost in memory among the exercisers. Immediately after the strenuous activity, the cyclists had significantly higher levels of a protein known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which is known to promote the health of nerve cells. The men who had sat quietly showed no comparable change in BDNF levels.
For some time, scientists have believed that BDNF helps explain why mental functioning appears to improve with exercise. However, they haven’t fully understood which parts of the brain are affected or how those effects influence thinking. The Irish study suggests that the increases in BDNF prompted by exercise may play a particular role in improving memory and recall.
In another study review by Reynolds, exercise even appears to slow the negative effects of aging in the brain functioning of pilots. The article concludes with a quotation from Dr. Ahmad Salehi, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, who says, “But for everyone, the evidence is very, very strong that physical activity will increase BDNF levels and improve cognitive health.”
So, do you want to think more clearly? Do you want to maintain your brain function as you get older? Then go and get some exercise, and keep it up.