Recent studies have shown that exercise not only improves physical and mental health, but can also make us smarter no matter what our age- child, adult, or the aging. This report by Kristin Harrison, editor-in-chief of Her Sports + Fitness, on Active.com, synthesizes some of the most recent research showing that exercise really does make us smarter: We all know exercise is good for us. But recently, researchers have added a startling new perk to its long list of benefits--it may make you smarter and help you stay that way as you age. According to neuroscientists, exercise increases blood flow in the brain, encourages activity between the neurons, and even promotes new neurons to grow in the hippocampus, which plays a major role in memory and learning.
"Exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain function," says Harvard psychologist John Ratey, M.D., and author of the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Turns out, exercise boosts brainpower regardless of age, which is why you, your 4-year-old daughter and your 84-year-old grandmother should get moving.
Fit Kids = Smart Kids Charles Hillman, a runner, cyclist, hockey player and associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has spent more than a decade researching the effects of exercise on adult brains. The birth of his now 5-year-old son shifted his work in a new direction.
"My son runs around like a maniac all the time," says Hillman, who noticed the children unlike his son at a shopping mall's play center--those who chose to sit on the fringes and not participate. "One thing that's always bothered me about my work with adults is that we don't intervene until they are older and sedentary. I wondered if by studying sedentary children we could prevent them from becoming sedentary, unhealthy adults."
In 2005, Hillman and his research team began investigating a simple question: Do fit kids perform better on a cognitive test than sedentary kids? To find out, Hillman had 51 volunteer children watch a screen that displayed drawings of dogs and cats randomly. He instructed the kids to hit a button as fast as they could whenever they saw a cat, shown 20 percent of the time. Their results were then compared with scores from a fitness test. "The fit kids processed information more quickly and performed faster and more accurately than their sedentary peers. Exercise can really affect cognition, just as it affects muscles," says Hillman.
Ratey's research backs this up. "Exercise influences learning directly, at the cellular level, improving the brain's potential to log in and process new information," he says. In Spark, he cites the small, low-income school district of Titusville, Pennsylvania, where physical-education coordinator Tim McCord convinced the district to add 10 minutes to the schedule to make time for daily gym classes that focused on aerobic fitness. Since the changes in 2000, the students' standardized test scores have risen dramatically, from below the state average to 17 percent above it in reading and 18 percent above in math.
As a parent, Hillman has simple advice for how to help your children's brains get healthier. "Keep kids moving," he says. "They need at least one hour of intermittent movement per day--the more the better."
Stay Sharp as an Adult From the growing number of studies conducted in the last decade, researchers have discovered that exercise most positively affects what's known as executive function--mental processes that allow you to plan, organize, and multitask. Interestingly, in your 20s and into middle age, these benefits can be seen both immediately after a workout and years later.
For example, in a 2006 German study, researchers found participants learned vocabulary words 20 percent faster immediately after an anaerobic sprint session. Scientists theorize these boosts occur because the brain, flowing with increased levels of blood and oxygen, can operate at its most efficient level.
The take-home lesson: "If you have an important afternoon brainstorming session scheduled, going for a short, intense run at lunch is a smart idea," says Ratey. Beyond the immediate benefit exercise provides, working out regularly now can also help you years down the road. A 2002 study at University College London surveyed more than 1,900 people and found that those who participated in regular physical activities at age 36 showed significantly less decline in memory at ages 43 to 53 than their less active peers.
Although researchers aren't sure why, studies have found that regular aerobic exercise (lasting at least 30 minutes) combined with strength training offers the most cognitive benefits.
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