This post is all about your brain. And exercise. And sea squirts. Let me explain.
This post is inspired by the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey, MD. It is a fascinating read!
This book is all about how your brain changes and functions when the body exercises. Did you know that getting your blood pumping, your heart racing, and your endorphins firing are just side effects of exercise? The real game changer is what is going on in your brain. With Halloween coming up, it seems fitting to talk about brainnsssss. Exercise does something to your brain that is unlike any thing else. It actually primes your brain to function at peak performance. After exercising you are more likely to do well on a test, read and understand concepts, perform balance exercises, problem solve, recall memories, and much more. The author of this book said that he sometimes tell patients that moderate aerobic exercise before a difficult task is much like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Adderall. BUT WITHOUT ALL THE SIDE EFFECTS!
Scientists have known about this phenomenon for a long time as they study rats problem solving; i.e., solve a maze, find cheese, choose a career path. They found that an important protein released in the brain during exercise called brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF, for the abbreviation inclined. This protein factor is essential in problem solving, memory making and all the other things previously mentioned. In order to get rats’ brain to secrete BDNF, guess what scientists make them do? RUN on a running wheel! Here is a VERY simple break down of one of their studies,
Rats in Cage 1: no running wheel, just open space, food and water,
Rats in Cage 2: running wheel, open space, food and water.
Now, after the rats in Cage 2 have taken their daily jog on the running wheel, place them in a murky pool along with the rats in Cage 1. There is a platform for the rats to get out of the pool, but it is slightly harder for them to see given the murky water. Now, time how long it takes each rat to find the platform and climb out of the water.
Repeat the experiment.
Guess what scientists found? The rats who were in Cage 2 outperformed the rats in Cage 1. They were able to find the platform quicker so that they could climb out, and they remembered where the platform was quicker every time the experiment was repeated.
And this is just one experiment that proved exercise amped up brain power. Just out the book for many more!
I know what you are thinking, “that’s all fine and dandy, Ms. Therapist, but rats ain’t people.” Well, a sort of “human experiment” was carried out as well in a school district in Naperville, Illinois by a Physical Education teacher. This school district added PE in the morning for students. They cut a few minutes from other classes, and even added a few minutes on to the end of the school day in order to make more time for PE class (when most schools are doing the opposite). They encouraged students to schedule their hardest class right after PE. Once again, guess what they found? Student’s scores in math and science increased by at least 17%. Naperville high school scored ABOVE schools in China and Japan, where usually the US trails at 4th or 5th place.
I will leave you with one final example of why your brain NEEDS exercise. In his 2002 book, I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self, NYU neurophysiologist, Rodolfo Llinas, is quoted in Spark as saying, “That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internalization of movement.” So, if we can think, we can move. If we move, we need a brain. If we have a brain, we need to move. He uses the example of the sea squirt to illustrate this. The larvae sea squirt swims around in shallow water looking for a place to settle down. The larvae sea squirt is able to do this because he has a simple brain, only 300 neurons, and spinal column. For comparison, the human brain has about 100 billion. Once the larvae decides on a piece of coral or rock to plant its roots, it digests its brain and spinal chord because it will never need to move again. If it don’t need to move, it don’t need to think!
So, next time you feel like you are in a brain fog or you have to study for a test, get ready for the big presentation, or help your 10 year old with their homework, an aerobic exercise will make sure that you blow your competition out of the water. Even if you’re competing with a 10 year old.
Be thankful all the tools you need to heal are inside you!