Office Fitness

The best way to boost your brain and fertilise your neurons is by working up a sweat. The importance of physical activity was explained in depth at John Ratey’s speech, a psychiatrist based in Harvard Medical School, in front of 1100 leading educators at an education conference.

Ratey started by getting everyone on their feet doing 20 seconds of intensive exercise with 10 seconds breaks in between. He explained later how this helped to get the audience more engaged and alert for his speech. Ratey pointed out the familiar facts of how working out prevents the risk of getting heart disease, reduces the risks of certain cancers and eliminates the inception of type II diabetes. In addition to the well-known health benefits of an active lifestyle, he mentioned that recent research discovered that fitness has a positive influence on an extensive range of cognitive abilities that forms our IQ. 

He explained how physical activity is very beneficial from childhood as it helps the children to feed and support their brain growth. The same benefits apply for adults and elders, as physical exercise prevents the brain from deteriorating, and could also stop the development of serious mental illnesses such as dementia.

Research Evidence on the Link between Exercise and Brain Performance

Research conducted in the1960s first suggested the link between working out and performing simple cognitive tasks, but its importance was only appreciated 30 years later. In a study conducted by geneticist Fred Gage in mid-1990s it was discovered that exercise seems to develop new neurons in mice. Then, in an article published on Nature by cognitive psychologist Arthur Kramer, he presented that formerly sedentary adults boosted their performance in cognitive drills after undergoing a 6-month aerobic workout plan.

In later years, more investigations on older people were conducted; one of these is a German study published in 2010 which showed that those who rarely participate in physical activities were much likely to develop cognitive impairment than active individuals, who took part in cycling, swimming or gardening a few times a week. Other studies reveal that these results may last long especially to those who exercise twice a week throughout their adult life. This research also took into consideration factors such as drinking, smoking and education.

There were also studies conducted on younger individuals which proved that physical activity boosts brainpower at every stage of life. One study showed that students who made it on the top 5% of the fitness rankings gained higher points on standardised academic tests compared to those who were ranked at the bottom 5%. The same results were attained in a research conducted in Sweden on 1.2 million men who enlisted for military services. It was found that there is a correlation between the participants’ fitness activity levels and their intelligence scores and cognitive abilities.

Neuroscientist Megan Herting of Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles thought that physical activity may be improved using a baseline healthy brain, if there could be any. However, recent research proved the contrary of this assumption, showing that the brain’s health can be contracted from childhood, through exercise. This implies that physical activity does not only boost cognition but it is actually a necessary condition for a healthy body and brain.

What does the link implies? According to neuroscientist Brian Christie of University of Victoria in Canada, stress may block necessary connections within your brain preventing its responses to solve some problems. Everyone can experiment this by simply taking a walk when stressed and observing how stress levels reduce and solutions become clearer in the mind. This can be one reason why fitter kids tend to perform well in school.

Since the brain needs a stable supply of oxygen and nutrients from the capillaries, regular physical activity can help the construction of these supplies lines and ease their maintenance. This idea is further supported by Matthew Pase of Swinburne University of Technology, in Australia, who learned that a slump in cognitive performance may be caused by high blood pressure. To reduce it, a person needs regular exercise to prevent undue stress on the brain’s food supply. Likewise, improved fitness prevents the risk of obesity and diabetes that disrupts the insulin system of the brain.

Aside from providing overall brain health development, exercise also encourages the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin. According to Ratey, neurotransmitters act like antidepressants. He explains that hitting the treadmill is similar to taking Prozac or Ritalin. Neurotransmitters induce the brain to release growth factors such as the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) that produces an environment where neurons can promote the growth of new connections lines among the cells.

Evolutionary Leap of Brain Performance

The link between mind and body might have rooted ever since our evolution. Biological anthropologist David Raiclen said that athleticism is a strong part of our evolutionary history as indicated by the manner animals search for food and their ability to remember their paths. Raiclen further concluded that the link might be an evolutionary accident and it may still depend on some profound events that occurred in our prehistory. He pointed out that since our ancestors endured long-distance walks to catch food, they had far greater athletic stamina than we have in the modern days. This encourages the thought that physical activity played an essential role in developing neurotrophins and growth factors which possibly resulted to a leap in intelligence. One of the studies conducted by Raiclen and his colleague Adam Gordon, on various groups of animal species, support this theory. Using their maximum metabolic rate as substitute for athleticism, the results show that those species with greater capacity for physical activity have bigger brains, compared to those which are less active. 

Also, Raiclen cited an experiment on mice bred for distant running which exhibited improved baseline levels of growth factors with increased production of new cells in the brain. Likewise, Raiclen carried out some studies on early human anatomy; he deduced that those with longer limbs indicate capacity to perform a more strenuous physical activity. Alongside with these results, he suggested that greater physical activity is associated with bigger brain size, however, he admitted that any direct evidence proving that one caused the other is still under-studied.

Physical Impact on Brain Activity Today 

Today, serious implications have emerged with regard to the brain-enhancing consequence of exercise. The US Department of Health is now promoting more physical education subjects to be offered in schools and the Institute of Medicine suggests that physical activities should be held in elementary, middle and high schools. Ratey said it is important for kids to move every day, not just because it encourages good health, but also because it increases their test ratings. 

The same principle can be applied to older population, who could preserve health brain through exercise. Traditionally, cognitive strategies such as brain teasers were considered alternative ways to sharpen the ageing brain. However, the evidence is not clear of whether the cognitive training tasks are translated into everyday life, says Kramer. Nevertheless, new exercise routines, typically conducted regularly throughout a period of 6 months to 1 year, may help to accelerate speed processing as well as memory and attention improvement in all kinds of brain activities.

The Ideal Type of Exercise for a Healthier Brain

One of the most essential physical activities is an aerobic workout; however, it may depend on your current fitness. Kramer explains that the physical activity does not have to be strenuous; even gentle activities, such as talking a long walk a few times a week, can show improvements, especially for the older generation. This will improve the size of their hippocampi that increases their brain network connectivity and boosts recall functions.

For individuals who are in good shape, Ratey suggests high-intensity interval training (HIIT) which involves short and intensive bursts of exercises. This kind of exercise prompts the pituitary gland to produce human growth hormones that enhances the neurotransmitter levels. Ratey supports HIIT based on a German study. The results revealed that those participants who took part in two sets of 3-minute high intensity sprinting and 40-minute run produced higher levels of noradrenaline and BDNF and performed better in a vocabulary exercise. Nevertheless, Ratey warns that HIIT is a type of exercise that a first-time exerciser should build towards gradually. 

Regular exercise, in any form, will have a positive impact on the brain health, from childhood to late adulthood. Ratey shared that he exercises at least 3 times a week. Kramer, who is now 60, works at a standing desk that has a treadmill underneath which he uses on a regular basis. Kramer advises everyone interesting to achieve a better health that it is never too late to start exercising, the benefits will show eventually.