Can exercise make you smarter?
Neurogenesis and the Wellesley Woman
Published: Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Updated: Thursday, September 30, 2010 21:09
It's a Monday afternoon. You are absolutely swamped with work—you've just been assigned six more calculus sets, and you still haven't finished your history essay. You really did mean to go for a run after your last class, but you're already tired and you have so much schoolwork to do.
We've all been there. We understand that exercise is important—after all, Wellesley does have a PE requirement, and we're certainly not blind to the barrage of health-oriented facts and studies around us. What we might not understand, however, is that exercise doesn't just tone your body—it tones your mind as well.
Neurogenesis is defined as "the production of new nerve cells," according to Barb Beltz, head of the Neuroscience Department at Wellesley. For years, scientists believed that humans were born with a set number of nerve cells, called neurons. We now know that not only are new neurons being born throughout our lives—in essence, our brains are regenerating themselves—but also that physical activity has a huge impact on both the creation and maturation of these neurons.
Proving this statement is a string of stunning studies spanning the past decade. In the late 1990s, a groundbreaking experiment proved that active mice produce two to three times as many new neurons as lethargic mice. This study was continued to test the impact on the maturation of these new neurons, and another shocking discovery was made—mice that exercised matured as much as 25% more neurons than those that didn't.
A more recent study conducted at the University of Illinois attempted to prove these same trends in humans by observing the impact of physical fitness on the cognitive performance of children aged 9 and 10. As predicted, fitter children performed better on intelligence and memory tests. Subsequent MRI scans showed that the fit children had more developed hiccocampi, the primary area of the brain that deals with learning and memory.
What does that mean for Wellesley women? Professor Beltz explains the significance of neurogenesis: "New neurons are preferentially incorporated into new memory networks and are critical for memory consolidation. It's incredible." The more mature neurons we have, the likelier we are to have better, quicker and more efficient memories. And the best way to stimulate the production and maturation of new neurons is through exercise.
"It really is fascinating," says Beltz. And if you're interested in neurogenesis, you could definitely make a career out of it: neurogenesis is one of the top five topics in neuroscience research today.
On a less technical level, Connie Bauman, a PE and sports medicine professor, discussed the significance of neurogenesis in Wellesley classrooms.
"Who doesn't want to get smarter?" asks Bauman. Last year she sent a New York Times article ("Lobes of Steel") that stresses the link between exercise and cognitive performance to her sports medicine class, and received enthusiastic feedback. "I saw them in the sports center (outside of my class) twice as much," she said. "The students reported that their academic performance was better, that they were more alert and asked better questions."
Bauman decided to conduct a small experiment of her own. Prior to a test, she had her students run in place and do jumping jacks—anything to get their heart rate up. Several students stated that they knew they performed better on the test as a result.
Bauman acknowledges that exercising can be tough. Wellesley students are inclined to work themselves academically while dodging exercise, and many view the recommended thirty to forty minutes per day as drudgery. "Choose something that's fun," Bauman suggests. "Mix it up." Don't get caught up in the gym mentality—you don't need an electronic panel in front of you to exercise. Run around the lake, cycle, or choose a new gym class. "If you're studying in your room, turn on some music and dance for a while." Dancing, says Bauman, is both fun and extremely beneficial.
She's also quick to point out that if you're looking for that cognitive boost, archery isn't going to cut it. Neurogenesis studies have confirmed that aerobic exercise, at least four to five times a week, is the best way to make sure your newborn neurons reach maturity.
However, if we want to have a positive impact on neurogenesis, we have to remember the mantra of a healthy lifestyle: balance. Natalie Matthews '11, a neuroscience major, points out that there are many factors that impact the up-regulation of neurogenesis. "Regular sleeping patterns, a regular diet, and engaging yourself in new learning environments are all thought to contribute," she says. "Yes exercise is good for you for many reasons, but it doesn't mean we should neglect other parts of a healthy lifestyle, or over-exercise."
So even though you might be a bit tired, even though you have a mountain of work to finish, think twice before you skip your run or decide to grab a premade burger instead of making your own salad. Don't kill off those baby neurons! Be sure to take care of your body so that your brain can take care of you.