The Simplest Way To Smart

Posted: June 15, 2013

The Friendly City Files

Forget the puzzles, games and mental exercises. There’s an easier way to boost your brainpower: get moving.

We all know exercise is good for our health. But it is also a scientifically proven way to make ourselves smarter.

According to Gretchen Reynolds, author of “The First 20 Minutes” — a book about the science of exercise — recent research shows that activity can help your brain resist physical shrinkage and improve cognitive flexibility.

“Exercise,” she says, “ ... does more to bolster thinking than thinking does.”

Here’s why.

Your brain is a tissue and, as with any other tissue, lack of use, abuse and age causes it to decline in performance. Sometime in our late 20s, the hippocampus — the portion of our brain devoted to learning and memory — loses about a percent per year in total volume. So, it’s no surprise that, as we get older, we naturally lose some of our memory and learning capacity.

But what is surprising is that, similarly to muscles, exercise can slow or even reverse the physical decay of the brain.

While you may have been told that lost brain cells cannot be restored once they are lost, they actually can be — and exercise helps trigger  that process.

By exercising, you not only build muscle, but a bigger brain.

Exercise also makes those new cells more effective. Brain cells can improve intellect only if they join the existing neural network. Many do not and instead rattle aimlessly around in the brain before dying.

One way to pull neurons into the network, however, is to learn something.

In one study on mice, new brain cells became a part of the animals’ neural networks if they learned to navigate a water maze, a task that is cognitively but not physically taxing. (In other words, the “doing” is easy; the “figuring out” is what’s hard.)

But those brain cells were very limited in terms of what they could do. When the researchers studied brain activity after, they found that the newly wired cells fired only when the animals navigated the maze again, not when they practiced other cognitive tasks.

The learning encoded in those cells did not transfer to other types of rodent thinking.

Exercise, on the other hand, seems to make neurons nimble. When researchers in a separate study had mice run, the animals’ brains readily wired many new neurons into the neural network. But those neurons didn’t fire later only during running — they also lit up when the animals practiced cognitive skills, such as exploring unfamiliar  environments.

In the mice, running (unlike learning) had created brain cells that could multitask.

So, how much exercise is enough to build a better brain? While most studies have focused on aerobic activities, such as running or swimming, even walking can make a difference. One study showed that people who walked for just 40 minutes three days a week took two years off the “age” of their hippocampus — and significantly improved their memory function.

So, don’t take a walk just to clear your head.

Walk to get smarter, too.

Jeff Haden lives in Harrisonburg and is a bestselling ghostwriter and Inc. Magazine columnist. He can be reached at

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