How Exercise Makes Us Smarter

Alex McMillan

Alex McMillan

Head Trainer, Mid Age Man

The mental aspect of exercise is often ignored. But we must prepare mentally to be ready and physically fit. The brain and body are intrinsically linked. Studies in mice show that working out actually makes you smarter, and helps sustain your brain into old age.

The four principles on which Mid Age Man’s fitness philosophy is built involve physical fitness, sensible nutrition, mental strength, and attention to your inner self. Only by bringing all four together can we truly call ourselves “fit.”

I want to talk about those last two. They get forgotten. When we say we want to get “fit,” we picture long-distance runs, furious spin cycling, hot-yoga sessions, pumping iron at the gym.

But working on our mind and our positive approach to life are essential – we live inside our heads. Our bodies only get us around. They’re the machines, and our minds are the software that runs them.

There’s evidence that physical exercise is directly related to improvements in the structure of our brain. That’s not to mention all the positive effects that stem from pumping hormones such as endorphins (your own natural opioids) and serotonin (the body’s own antidepressant) around your body.

As usual, scientists started out by torturing mice. Poor mice! They always get it.

Mindgames: playing mah jong or cards will keep you mentally sharp, but the science shows you get smarter through physical exercise, too.

First, they injected mice with a modified vaccine for rabies, which the scientists could easily track as it flowed through the nervous system and brain of the mice. The folks in lab coats started tracing connections between the brain cells of the mice. Then they wrote up their findings in the journal Neuroimage.

For one month, they let some mice run on a wheel in their cages, which of course the animals love. Running on wheels, I mean. They probably hate the cages.

Anyway, some of the mice got to run, and other mice sat around with nothing to do in their cages except think about cheese and escaping.

When the scientists compared the brains of the runners to the couch potatoes, they found that the runners had better neurons, with longer dendrites, the tentacles that link the brain cells to the nervous system. And more of those connections led to parts of the brain that help you with spatial memory, your own internal map.

When this part of the brain starts to fail, it’s one of the first signs of dementia. I recall my poor grandmother driving to the local corner store for groceries one day. A couple of hours later my uncle, who lived next door, went to go find her. She couldn’t remember how to get home. She had to stop driving.

One reason scientists study mice is that they have short lives (particularly when they are tortured by scientists). Studying the mice for a month, the period of the study, is the same as studying humans for years.

The scientists did a second study of mice for a week, again with half of them running and the others doing nothing. Even after running for only a week, the brains of the runners were chock full of neurons, far more than those who had been vegging out in front of mouse Netflix.

The runners had brain cells that were bigger, and much better connected, with much longer dendrites that linked all through their grey matter, particularly to the parts associated with memory and spatial awareness.

Their brains were bigger. Their brains were better. They were even calmer – mature brain cells fire less rapidly when bombarded with chemical messages, and the runners had cells that were less excitable than their inactive mouse peers. The scientists wrote it up in Scientific Reports.

Now, there are a bunch of human athletes who are none too smart. Ian Rush, the Welsh striker, springs to mind.

“I couldn’t settle in Italy,” the goal machine said after spending a year playing for Juventus in Turin. “It was like living in a foreign country.”

Or there’s the English midfielder Mark Draper, who was keener than Rush on a move abroad.

“I’d like to play for an Italian club, like Barcelona,” he told a reporter. The astute will note that Barcelona is, at least for now, very much part of Spain.

But I would chalk those comments up to the very insular nature of Brits of a certain age, a lack of formal education, and a focus exclusively on soccer at a young age.

They may sound stupid. It’s unlikely they will be senile. And I’m sure they will always remember exactly where the shops are, even if Rush won’t be stocking up on pasta.

We need balance. Mental strength can kick our body into action, but that process can set in motion a positive-feedback loop.

The long-suffering mice and what happens to their brains show that physical activity makes you more switched on. This makes innate sense. Your brain has plugged in the machine of your body, and the software has got some positive feedback and reward.

It takes some mental strength to get going on the path to fitness in the first place. But once you’re on it, if you commit to doing a little bit of exercise every day, you may well find that there’s a positive feedback loop.

Mental resolve gets you in the gym door, to the yoga studio, or on your bike. Your central nervous system (your brain and spine) tells your peripheral nervous system (your nerves) to fire up the engine and get the muscular/skeletal system going. It requires mental effort before your muscles will move in that direction.

Once we are there, it’s essential that we approach our workouts with a positive mindset, or we won’t keep going. Talk to personal trainers, and they’ll tell you endless stories of guys (always guys!) who come in at the start of the year, saying “This is it! I’m gonna really go for it, and get fit!”

They spend 90 minutes, 120 minutes or more in the gym, lifting as heavy as they can. They do this two or three times. Then they quit. It’s far too much work!

Start slow, build up, but if you’re anything like me you’ll soon find you miss your daily dose of exercise like crazy if you don’t get it. It will be super-easy for your brain to get your body heading in the right direction. Your brain won’t be able to get enough of all the good chemicals that the whole process of exercise liberates in your body.

Working on your mind or brain sounds like something you need to do on a psychiatrist’s couch (You sit on a chair, I can vouch, no couch by the way. I’ve done a lot of therapy!). But we can also work on it ourselves, in our own time.  We can even work on our brains while exercising.

Personally, I find it quite liberating to spend some time in the gym, even though it’s my equivalent of being in a cage on a wheel. I set aside a portion of the day to move around. While I’m running on the metaphoric wheel, I focus on exactly which muscles I’m using, come up with different routines to challenge myself, and treat it like a spot of meditation.

After that, I’m refreshed, physically and mentally. I don’t feel worn out. I feel pleasantly satisfied, my body feels darn good, and those sunny chemicals are pumping around my whole being. I’m in good shape for the rest of the day.

We don’t pay enough attention to working out our brain, to cleaning out our soul. Yet our mental approach to exercise and to life is just as important as any physical workout. They mesh very nicely together. Exercise will get your body feeling better – it should be fun, not a torture – but it will also be satisfying mentally. It will be rewarding. You’ll feel better for yourself all round.

And it looks like your brain will be stronger, and work better for longer in your life. Food for thought.

Those tiny mice running and around and around on their little legs, going nowhere, aren’t so dumb for doing it after all.

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About the author

Alex McMillan

Alex McMillan

Head trainer at Mid Age Man. Alex believes there are four pillars to being healthy: physical fitness, sensible nutrition, mental strength, and wellbeing for your body and soul.

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