The brain is often described as being “like a muscle”. We judge literacy and numeracy exercises as more beneficial for your brain than running, playing and learning on the move. But the brain-as-muscle analogy doesn’t quite work. To build up your biceps you can’t avoid flexing them. When it comes to your brain, an oblique approach can be surprisingly effective.
Brain training: should you believe the hype?
Scientists are showing that the runner’s high can have profound effects on your brain. Moreover, specific physical activities can markedly alter its structure in precise ways.
A wave of studies exploring the unexpected links between mental and bodily fitness is emerging from labs. This research might give you the nudge to get more active. It can also help you choose the best ways to prepare physically for mental challenges such as exams, interviews and creative projects.
Boost your memory
The part of the brain that responds strongly to aerobic exercise is the hippocampus. Well-controlled experiments in children, adults and the elderly show that this brain structure grows as people get fitter. Since the hippocampus is at the core of the brain’s learning and memory systems, this finding partly explains the memory-boosting effects of improved cardiovascular fitness.
As well as slowly improving your memory hardware, exercise can have a more immediate positive impact on your memory. German researchers showed that walking or cycling during, but not before, learning helped new foreign language vocabulary to stick. So exercise while you revise. Don’t push it too hard, though: vigorous workouts can raise your stress levels!
Improve your concentration
Besides making memories stickier, exercise can help you focus and stay on task. The best scientific evidence comes from testing school children, but the same most likely applies to us all. Interspersing lessons with 20-minute bouts of aerobics-style exercise improved the attention spans of Dutch school pupils. Meanwhile, a large randomised controlled trial in the US looked at the effects of daily after-school sports classes over a school year. The children, of course, got fitter. Less predictably, their executive control improved. They became more adept at ignoring distractions, multitasking, and holding and manipulating information in their minds.
And if that all sounds like hard work, you may not have to get out of breath to reap the attention-honing effects of exercise! Just 10 minutes of playful coordination skills, like bouncing two balls at the same time, improved the attention of a large group of German teenagers.
Improve your mental health
Love it or hate it, bouts of physical activity can have potent effects on your mood. The runner’s high – that feeling of elation that follows intense exercise – is good for the brain.
Don’t sit still
The cognitive spillover from exercise reminds us that our brains and bodies and don’t operate in isolation. What you do with your body impinges on your mental faculties. Sitting still all day, every day, is dangerous. So don’t dither about what form of exercise you do. Find something you enjoy, then get up and do it!