Want to Get Smarter? Exercise More

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D.

Could those most fit also have the fittest brains?

Now armed with newer generation brain-scanning devices such as fMRI and more sophisticated biochemistry assays, researchers are building a case that exercise can make you smarter.

It seems that every time you work out, your muscles send out chemicals that cross the brain barrier to stimulate the production of brain derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF. It appears that BDNF is sort of “fertilizer” for neuroplasticity causing brain cells to branch out, join together and communicate with each other facilitating memory and cognitive processes.

Research by UCLA neuroscientist Dr. Fernando Gomez-Pinilla suggests that rather than neurons in our brain dying off as we get older, people who exercised regularly for 3 months seemed to stimulate BDNF levels in the body causing the sprouting of new neurons. Further research seems to also support the idea that working out stimulates the growth of the frontal lobes of the brain often considered the “executive functioning areas” due to their role in decision-making, planning ahead and multi-tasking (Gomez Padiulla, F. (2007). The influences of diet and exercise on mental health through hormesis. Aging Research Reviews).

An analysis of 18 longitudinal fitness-training research studies reveal that cognitive functioning is significantly improved regardless of the type with cardiovascular workouts. The finding that exercise is a key for increasing BDNF levels in the hippocampus–an area vital for memory, problem solving and learning–has provided insight about the physiological mechanisms responsible for the effects of exercise on cognitive functioning.

In recent research by Gomez-Pinilla, blocking BDNF actions abolishes the ability of exercise to facilitate learning and memory as well as interfering with building synaptic connections. It would appear that exercise is vital for brain health and becoming smarter.

Exercise seems to have immediate, although transitory, effects. It appears you can learn 20% faster immediately after working out as opposed to sitting in a meeting. But like everything, you have to use it or lose it–one month of physical inactivity seems to actually cause shrinkage of neurons.

Not only might you actually be smarter if you exercise, there are a number of other desirable side-effects including:

  • Physically inactive employees have 45% greater chance of developing heart disease
  • Colon cancer is approximately 40% more likely to occur in those who are inactive
  • HDL cholesterol (involved in reducing cardiovascular disease) increased an average of 4.6% with exercise
  • Epidemiological research suggests that each of us can gain 2 hours of life expectancy for each hour of vigorous physical activity
  • Women being treated for breast cancer who practice moderate exercise have 50% less recurrence and death than those inactive
  • Depressed individuals who walk 180 minutes a week experience 30% more remissions than those who don’t work out
  • People who aren’t physically active have approximately 60% greater risk of developing osteoporosis

If the 68.7% of people age 18 and older in the US who don’t exercise would begin to start working out regularly, we might actually increase the collective intelligence of our country….Be well….