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Get Smarter Through Exercise

Dr. Thomas J. Boud - September 18, 2012

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President Hinckley has advised us to “Be Smart,” and recent studies support the relationship between our ability to learn and consistent exercise.

"You belong to a church that teaches the importance of education,” President Hinckley taught when he explained his admonition to Be Smart. “You have a mandate from the Lord to educate your minds and your hearts and your hands.” The development and health of our minds will help us be more proficient in our chosen fields of service, and recent science suggests that exercise is crucial in maintaining a healthy mind. In a nutshell, it’s smart to exercise, and in return, exercise can make you smarter.

The physical size of the brain will reach its maximum volume between the ages of 10 and 20. Then, as we progress through adulthood, there is a slow but steady shrinkage, or atrophy, of our brains. Atrophy of the brain is associated with eventual loss of memory and a cognitive decline. Continuing to both learn and exercise throughout one’s life is key to slowing the natural process of shrinkage of the brain’s cells and maintaining their health and function.

According to the latest neuroscience, exercise does more to bolster thinking than even thinking itself does. This is based on animal studies in which some animals were placed in very stimulating, enriched environments, where every appetite could be immediately gratified—and other groups of animals just exercised. Studies were performed to see which group became smarter over time. The only factor that improved the animal’s brainpower, regardless of their environment, was regular aerobic exercise.

Exercise appears to slow the brain’s natural decay similar to the effect that physical activity has on our muscles. Well-oxygenated blood flow seems to promote the creation of new brain cells in a process called neurogenesis. As we then stimulate our brains through learning, exercise appears to assist these new cells in becoming part of the functioning nerve pathways. In essence, exercise creates the environment in which healthy brain cells can thrive in carrying out their various functions. 

Exercise has also been proven to naturally and safely raise the brain chemicals responsible for improving our clarity of thinking, mood, and performance, and it stimulates the nervous system to function  at a higher level.

Debbie Phelps, a middle school principal in Maryland, was heartbroken when her struggling nine-year-old boy was officially diagnosed with ADD. He wouldn’t sit still in class, couldn’t stay focused on assignments, and had impulse and anger control issues. Despite him hating to get his face wet, she signed him up for swimming, which would provide an outlet for his frustrations and more structure in his life. At the age of 21, Michael had broken 14 world records, and he is now the most decorated Olympic athlete in history.

We don’t need to be Olympic athletes to improve our brain’s function. Most of the benefits to our brains come with low to moderate levels of exercise. The mood-enhancing and cognitive effects of exercise persist well beyond when the exercise itself is completed. Thirty minutes several times a week is good, and 30–60 minutes five times a week is even better. Daily or twice-a-day physical activity is best. Regardless of age or situation, everyone can likely improve their current level of intellectual and physical fitness. The key is to start where you are and be consistent.

Finally, if you learn to enjoy it, you will more likely keep at it. Competitive sports, classes, listening to music or lectures, and even taking time to meditate can further enhance the benefits of exercise. It really is a “no brainer”: if you are smart, you will exercise, and exercise sure can help you get smarter. Some of us appreciate all the help we can get.

Now let’s get healthy!
—Dr. Boud

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© September/October, 2012.
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