Can exercise make you smarter? I never really considered the question until just a few years ago, toward the end of my first semester in grad school.
I realized the effects of exercise on the brain when, after thinking more diligently than ever before in my life and staying glued to my computer screen for days on end, something snapped. I couldn’t sit for a moment longer. So I sprung up, and spent a good portion of my remaining, yet all-too-fleeting, writing time outside running…errr…run-jog-walking to be more specific.
Now, let me tell you, I rarely have the urge to run. I know exercise is good for me, and I do it fairly often. It’s just that the inclination doesn’t often strike me without some sort of internal battle between logic and lethargy. So that sudden spurt really caught me off guard. But in retrospect, I see why I needed the exercise, and how it helped me.
I was able to return to my work with much more energy and a clearer head. That got me thinking. Can exercise help students perform better academically?
Everyone from pundits to P.E. teachers to physicians says that exercise is good for us. But we mostly think of this in a purely physical sense—it helps us lose weight and build muscle. But exercise does so much more than help us look better in a bathing suit. It turns out regular exercise can help us perform better as students. Here’s why:
Exercise helps us cope better with stress
It’s no secret that schoolwork causes some major stress (I know I’m not the only one who’s endured those last-minute marathon writing sessions). And while a little stress might help push us to work a little more effectively, severe stress and anxiety are absolutely paralyzing.
Exercise, however, can help mitigate the effects of all that stress we feel in school. Research indicates that exercise increases the brain’s concentration of a chemical called norepinephrine. It’s not that the chemical necessarily reduces the stress, rather, norepinephrine boosts the body’s ability to respond to stress efficiently. That’s because exercise helps the body practice dealing with stress. Working out forces the body’s physiological systems to communicate closely with one another. Think of it this way: a team of firefighters is much more efficient if the members practice drills. The body’s systems work in much the same way. Once the chaos is managed and operations are running smoothly, we can become more efficient students.
Exercise gives our brain more of what it needs to function
A growing body of evidence suggests that we think and learn better while exercising. Exerting ourselves physically increases blood flow and blood pressure throughout the body. When more blood reaches the brain, it receives more oxygen and energy—which naturally means it will perform more effectively. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to try to read while running on the treadmill (though I’d be very impressed if you can do that). It simply means instead of grabbing another cup of coffee, get out and move around for a bit. A good shot of O2 to the brain is the best way to get charged up for school work.
Exercise slows the brain’s physical decay
Just as with any other organ or tissue in the body, the brain’s function declines with age. Every year, most adults lose about 1% of volume in their hippocampus—the part of the brain associated with memory and learning. But regular exercise combats this deterioration, as it plays a big role in jumpstarting neurogenesis—the creation of new brain cells.
There is a catch, though. Exercise alone won’t improve brain function; you have to keep using those new brain cells and learn new things to keep them alive. Sounds like the perfect excuse to become a professional student, doesn’t it?
Now that you know of the amazing mental benefits of physical activity, it’s time to get moving! What are some of your favorite exercises to bolster your brain?