What if right before you took an exam you could go for a run, eat a banana, and then do so much better on your test than you thought you would? What if running, or walking, or biking, or skiing every day meant that you could find yourself thinking more quickly, and remembering more clearly? Would you start training for a marathon if you thought it meant graduating with honors? I know I would.
We already know that exercise keeps our hearts healthy and our lungs strong. It’s also a great way to stave off low moods, improving our mental as well as physical health. But here’s the kicker, and the thing that might just get me off the couch even in the dead of winter: some preliminary studies have found that exercise could be the key to sharpening our brains to their fullest potential. That’s right: Exercise can make us smarter.
How does it work? The body is a complex machine, and the brain is in control. When the brain directs the body during a bout of intense, deliberate exercise—coordinating balance and vision and keeping all your systems pumping while you’re busting your butt—it burns glycogen, or stored carbohydrates. And glycogen is essential to higher brain function.
The experiments, conducted in Japan, followed two groups of mice—one group getting plenty of exercise on tiny mouse treadmills, and the other group staying at home and watching sitcoms. It turns out that after rest and some carby food, the brains of the exercising mice had not only replenished their energy stores, but had produced an excess of energy. Scientists found as much as 60 percent more glycogen in all the portions of the brain that allow us to think quickly and to remember more clearly.
It was as if the physical activity had allowed their brains to be super-fueled, allowing those mice to ace their mid-terms. Sadly the effect was only temporary—the levels of glycogen dropped back to normal within about 24 hours.
But here’s the great part: if the animals continued to exercise, scientists found that the levels of energy in the brain didn’t just increase temporarily—they stayed that way. Even better, the increases were especially large in the parts of the brain that are critical to learning and memory.
So what does this mean? Well, we should definitely be exercising when we’re studying for a test, super-fueling those brains right when we need it. But more importantly, we should be exercising regularly. Health professionals recommend at least 150 minutes each week of moderate aerobic activity–just twenty minutes a day. I can do that! Because a healthy body, a better brain, and an excellent GPA sound like a pretty good idea to me.
I’m off to renew my gym membership, as soon as I figure out where I left my sneakers.
Sara Nelson is the Social Media Guru for Stevens-Henager College, overseeing the college’s profiles on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and more. She is also a student in the Master in Business Administration (MBA) program, and she enjoys spending time with her family, listening to good music, and eating freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.