You’ve heard it said over and over again…”Exercise is good for you”! But most of the time, the articles you read about exercise focus on the benefits on your health. Well, did you ever stop to consider that exercise may also be good for your BRAIN? Afterall, your brain is part of your body right? So why would the benefits of exercise exclude this all important organ?
Of course exercise affects our brains! Those of us who exercise regularly know that to be the truth. When I exercise, I’m happier and the world seems like a much friendlier place. When I’m in an exercise slump, as I was until just recently, I start slipping into bouts of feeling like a slug…probably because I’ve been acting like a slug.
We know that exercise makes us FEEL better, but can it make us smarter too? Recent studies have linked exercise to memory, learning, and even to the generation of new brain cells.
I was introduced to this concept a few years back at the Tony Horton Fitness Camp. Tony is a personal trainer to many celebrities, and the creator of the wildy popular home workout routine called P90X. Obviously, he is a big proponent of exercise to improve your physical body, but he had just became fascinated about what science was finding out about exercise and your brain, and he couldn’t wait to share it with us. He had a whole seminar at that camp that he called “Your Brain on Exercise”.
After returning home, I bought the book “Spark…The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” by John J. Ratey, MD. In the introduction to this book, Dr. Ratey says “In today’s technology-driven, plasma-screened-in world, it’s easy to forget that we are born movers – animals, in fact – because we’ve engineered movement right out of our lives”. So true!
Chapter one in Ratey’s book includes a case study from a school district in Naperville, Illinois. The 19,000 students in this school district were transformed into the fittest in the nation, and also some of the smartest. The kids hit the track or the treadmill before school starts. They call it “zero hour” because it’s before their first period. The PE system in Naperville focuses less on sports, and more on healthy lifestlyle habits. The kids in “zero hour” are required to exercise at 80-90% of their maximum heart rate. The hope is that this readies them for the learning that is to occur the rest of the day. Academically, the students of Naperville consistently rank among the state’s top ten schools even though the amount of money it spends on each student is notably lower than other top ten Illinois public schools.
What’s really at work here? A study headed by Astrid Bjornebekk of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden found that rodents that ran more led to an increase in new brain cells in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. This small horseshoe shaped sheet of neurons is located in the temporal lobes and plays an important role in long term memory. Researchers don’t count new brain cells in humans, but there have been studies showing increased blood flow to this area of the brain when humans exercise.
New brain cells are the “potential” for learning. In “Spark”, Dr. Ratey quoted one of the PE teachers at Naperville to say “In our department, we create the new brain cells. It’s up to the other teachers to fill them”.
In his book, Dr. Ratey talks about a protein in the brain called BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor). He refers to this protein as “miracle grow for the brain” because it actually stimulates the growth of new neurons in the brain. Studies have found that exercise stimulate the brain to produce BDNF.
So what type of exercise do you need to do to get these brain boosting benefits? Dr. Ratey suggests that at a minimum you should perform a brisk 30 minute four or five times a week. He also recommends interval training – really pushing yourself hard for 20 or 30 seconds while you are running, cycling, or swimming, so that you are momentarily exhausted. So, for example, you can walk for 2 minutes, sprint for 30 seconds, and then go back to walking for another 2 minutes. Do this over and over again until you’ve exercised for at least 20-30 minutes. It’s important to wear a heart rate monitor so you can track your intensity level, and always get your physician’s okay before starting any exercise program.
I hope that this article has made you consider regular exercise as an investment not only in your health, but in your business as well! In fact, what area of our life ISN’T touched by being more active?
What part of YOUR life has been improved because of regular exercise? Please share them in the comments!
Together we’re better!