Can Exercise Make You Smarter?
Physical activity forces the brain to grow in order to process more information.
Posted October 4, 2010
Yes, it can and does. You grow new brain cells at night if you walk 20-30 minutes a day. You also can grow new grey matter.
Take the case of a long term study of Swedish twins, pointed out to me by my friend Tom Walker. Georg Kuhn, professor of regeneration neuroscience at Gothenburg University, has written up some parts of this long term follow up of identical twins. On entering the military at 18, the fitter twin had a higher IQ. The fitter twin also made more money and experienced higher socio-economic success.
The same is true in young kids. Fitter kids, more grey matter—in very useful places for cognition and memory.
The real interesting question is why exercise works. So we get to the question of information.
Information rules the universe
Vlatko Vedral is professor of quantum information science at Oxford. His argument—the universe is information—not matter and energy, information. The whole Shannon equation, the main information equation devised 60 years ago, can also be used to derive the second law of thermodynamics and much else.
What does this mean for you? Give your body the right information and it will work better and last longer. Processing information is what your body does. That information needs to be processed, remembered or forgotten—what happens in what we call rest.
Exercise as body information
Think about how what happens when you walk across the street. Your body will be assaulted by hundreds of different chemicals, bacteria and viruses. Your immune system must respond. You move through three dimensional space, continuously changing your perceptions and working your ligaments, tendons, and muscles. They must all respond, change and grow.
Are you conscious of this? No. Yet your brain has to process it. Exercise creates an enormous information load.
And the brain and body change with all that new information. So much so, that tonight you will create new brain cells, in sleep, in memory areas.
What you are doing is growing memory storage to take in all the new information, which has now been integrated with previous memory.
Exercise also changes the dynamics of blood flow, of nutrient flow, increasing brain cell growth factors. The end result—you get a better, smarter brain—with more memory, and greater storage capacity.
Use your body the way it’s built. Humans are walking machines. Physical activity can make you smarter, healthier, letting you live longer while letting you feel more alive and aware. It can also be enormous fun, especially when you move with others, obtaining the further advantages of social rest and social connection.
Rest is not immobility but it’s opposite—the process by which we regenerate ourselves. Since so much of us is replaced in days, the health opportunity is immense. Exercise can help provide the right information to make that replacement work better—new brain cells, more brain connections, more muscle, better ligaments.
Life can be a lot of fun if you give your body the right information. It can also look better and last a lot longer, too.
Dr. Matthew Edlund, M.D., M.O.H., is an internationally recognized expert on rest, sleep, and body clocks. His books include The Body Clock Advantage, Designed to Last, and Psychological Time and Mental Illness. His new book, The Power of Rest, shows that rest is a skill that rebuilds, renews, and rewires mind and body, and can increase productivity, health, and pleasure. For more information, visit his website, TheRestDoctor.com. You can also subscribe to his new Fitcast via the iTunes Store.