Can you just be Jack for a moment and allow me to peddle you some magic beans? At this point in the fall semester, with exams approaching and the flickering feelings of burnout rearing their unwelcome heads, you may be looking for some magic beans, that silver bullet, that little dose of something extra, to push you through the end of the semester. No, I’m not trying to sell you drugs. In fact, I want to unlock what might be, for some of you, an untapped well of potential already within the confines of your mind. It turns out that this is free and available to you, even now. The investment is minimal, but the yield is great. I’m talking about exercise. Regular movement of your body—whether it is running or merely a brisk walk—has a profound effect on your brain. Specifically, it improves your memory and ability to think clearly. There is a large and growing body of science to substantiate the remarkable links between exercise and the brain. I intend to highlight the basic elements of this science and show you, practically, what you can implement today to begin thinking more clearly and remembering more effectively as you ramp up for exams and continue on your professional journey.
Numerous studies have confirmed clear links between exercise and two key parts of the brain: the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. The hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for short and long-term memory consolidation. Not surprisingly, the hippocampus is one of the first areas to deteriorate in Alzheimer’s disease—a disease resulting in increasing memory loss and disorientation. The prefrontal cortex particularly affects our brain’s executive functions such as reasoning, planning, organization, consequence evaluation, learning from mistakes, maintaining focus, and working memory.
When we exercise, when we move, we activate these parts of the brain and stimulate our brain’s ability to learn and perform other cognitive functions. Dr. John J. Ratey, MD, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says that exercise creates Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a protein which floods the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, causing new brain cells to grow and “log” new information. Dr. Ratey has called BDNF “Miracle Grow” for the brain. This process of growth is called “neurogenesis.” A 2007 Columbia University study concluded that exercise increased neurogenesis and reversed the effects of memory loss.
Schools across the country have caught on to these studies and have implemented rigorous physical education programs for their students. One school district in particular really stood out and highlighted the impressive impact of fitness on the brain’s ability to learn and function. School District 203 in Naperville, Illinois, developed a mature PE program over a couple decades, featuring daily heart-rate training for all of their students. In 1999, the school district participated in the Trends in International Mathematics and Sciences (TIMSS) test—an international test that ranks the students of the world’s countries according to performance on standardized math and science tests. Comparing eighth graders, Naperville School District 203 placed among the very top performers that year. Other school districts have seen equally impressive positive correlations between fitness and performance on test scores in math and reading.
In real life, what could it look like to implement the type of exercise regimen that could generate this “miracle grow” for the brain? Most of these studies simply had subjects walk briskly for 30 minutes a day, four days a week. The real benefit simply comes from elevating your heart rate and breaking a sweat. A basic way to enjoy these cognitive benefits could be walking. On the other hand, some of you may be interested in running a few miles a day for a few days a week. Alternatively, some may choose to pursue “boot camp” classes, high-intensity aerobics classes, or regular pick-up games of basketball or soccer. Also, interval training, whether it is on the track, the road, or a bike, is another option.
You will find that the direct benefits, improved cognitive and executive functions, are eclipsed by the many indirect benefits—reduced stress, improved mood, stronger body, better sleep, etc. In fact, a 1999 Duke University Medical School study took over 100 patients suffering from depression and divided them into three groups: (1) a group that took the drug Zoloft for 16 weeks; (2) a group that exercised 30 minutes a day, four times per week, for 16 weeks; and (3) a group that took Zoloft and did the exercise. Remarkably, at the end of the study, all three groups experienced the same average drops in levels of depression. This means that exercise had the same exact effects on mood and depression as Zoloft, but with none of the side effects.
So, what are you waiting for? Get out today and start walking, running, jumping, or whatever you can do to get your heart rate pumping and your sweat glands working. You may just find that exercise is the medicine you never knew you needed. And hopefully it pays off for exams!