For the last month or so, I’ve been subscribing to Lumosity, a brain training program that strengthens various facets of cognitive ability — speed, memory, attention, flexibility and problem solving — in the form of games. Apparently, it works because I’ve seen my numbers rise consistently over time.
Certainly, it makes sense that if you exercise your mind by participating in activities that force you to use the portion of your brain that regulates cognition, your mental “muscle” should improve, just as physical exercise strengthens physical muscle.
But increasingly, studies are showing that physical exercise also exercises your brain in just about every above mentioned cognitive ability. During the most recent study a team of researchers from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have discovered what happens to our brains at the cellular level when we exercise physically. The team injected a protein generated in the brains of rodents when they exercise into the brains of sedentary rodents; by doing so, genes that help protect the brain were switched on, producing the growth of nerves in regions of the brain that support learning and memory.
This is exciting news, because it is feasible that further research could help scientists reproduce this protein in the form of a drug to slow down or potentially halt the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
This study also reinforces the fact that humans are indeed complex, and that every aspect of our lives (emotional, physical, mental) is important to the health of all of the others. Other studies have explored the effects exercise has on specific brain functions:
- Princeton researchers discovered that exercise “reorganizes” the brain in such a way that reduces anxiety and makes us more resilient in stressful circumstances while producing new neurons that keep us mentally sharp. New neurons are more anxiety producing than older ones are, but exercise simultaneously creates new ones while keeping them from firing, thus keeping anxiety at bay
- In 2001, a team of researchers discovered that physically fit people perform better when they are measured for reasoning, working memory, reaction time and vocabulary
- In addition to the cumulative effect exercise has on strengthening our brains, college students who participated in a study showed improvement in reaction time and vocabulary learning immediately after running intensely
- Research conducted at Dartmouth College yielded similar results. For that study, 54 sedentary adults aged 18-36 were cognitively tested then divided into two groups; 1/2 walked or jogged four times a week for one month while the other half remained sedentary. One month later they were retested – before the testing, 1/2 of the fit group were told to exercise the day of the testing. Those who exercised that day scored higher than the group that had exercised during the prior month but who were told not to work out on testing day; the exercisers as a whole scored higher than those who had remained sedentary
On a personal note, I decided to test my own cognitive ability after a vigorous workout; I waited to do my lumosity training until exercising. In all areas of training except for one I scored higher than I ever had before.
Exercise is a win-win-win: not only do we become healthier physically and mentally, the endorphins released after exercising have a morphine-like effect on our mood for several hours post workout.