We already know that regular exercise makes you healthier, happier and, well, hotter. But did you know it could also make you smarter? That’s the premise of an emerging area of neuroscientific research, in which scientists are exploring the neurological effects of getting your regular dose of cardio.
It turns out that exercise does a lot more than get the blood pumping: in about 60 percent of the population, it may be responsible for the expression of a gene that floods your cells with “brain derived neurotrophic factor” — or BDNF – a protein that is thought to help with mental acuity, learning and memory.
In a study based at Dartmouth College, lead researcher Michael Hopkins and his team tested four different exercise schedules on a group of sedentary, though healthy young men. They gave the men a set of memory tests and mental health surveys to determine their psychological states. Some participants exercised for four weeks and were tested on the final day. Another group exercised for four weeks, but did not exercise on test day. A third group had just one day of exercise, followed by the test. A last group was sedentary throughout.
Hopkins and his team found that the group that exercised daily — and on test day — had the benefit of a boost in BDNF. The other groups did not. It’s important to note that “exercise” here referred to moderately-paced walking, rather than a very rigorous training session.
“For mental health benefits, what really counts is exercising on a regular basis — not the intensity. You don’t have to wipe yourself out,” Hopkins tells The Huffington Post. “The basic goal is, get up and move your whole body more than half of the days of the week.”
It’s not an entirely new insight that exercise helps the brain. We know that physical exertion improves blood circulation, which in turn delivers oxygen to the brain at a faster pace, leading to sharper thinking. And a recent Karolinska Institute study found that elite soccer players tested above average in several areas of cognitive ability: creative problem solving, multi-tasking, inhibition and working memory. But understanding the genetic and epigenetic components that contribute to improved brain function after exercise is crucial to getting a bigger picture of how exercise affects the body.
Now there’s even more reason to get out and get moving, even moderately. Your brain (and your heart and lungs) will thank you.