How Exercise Is Also Brain Exercise
How to enlarge the size of your brain.
The deepest canyon in the world is in Peru.
It’s called the Cotahuasi Canyon and it’s near the city of Arequipa.
The canyon was formed by the mighty Cotahuasi River.
It was during a river-rafting trip down this river that a woman in her late thirties had a revelation.
You see there was a variety of people on the trip. The youngest was 16 years old. The oldest was over 60.
What she realized was that of all the people on her rafting adventure, even though she considered herself healthy, she was the weakest person physically.
She admits that she had been living an unbalanced life. And it had taken its toll.
Classic story of “Too much work, not enough play.”
Her reliance on junk food had found her 25 lbs overweight.
The rafting trip was her attempt to broaden her horizons.
The first thing she did when she got home was to hire a personal trainer. She says it was “the best decision in my life.”
As time went by and her body started to get stronger, she started to notice something about herself.
Not only did she feel better physically, her mood improved. Plus she noticed her memory was sharper and her attention span was longer.
It made her curious about how exactly exercise affects the brain.
Fortunately for Wendy Suzuki, as a Professor of Neural Science and Psychology at New York University (NYU)’s Center for Neural Science, she was uniquely qualified to answer that question.
One of the studies she looked at was done in the late 1950’s by a woman by the name of Marian Diamond. Diamond is a professor of anatomy at the University of California, Berkeley. (Diamond, 88, is the subject of a multipart web series called My Love Affair with the Brain: The Life and Science of Dr. Marian Diamond.)
The study involved rats.
Why do so many scientific experiments involve rats? The genetic, biological and behavior characteristics of rats closely resemble those of humans. Therefore many symptoms of human conditions can be replicated in mice and rats.
Diamond’s rat experiment involved placing rats in two distinctly different environments. One was the “Disneyland of rat cages.” It was an “enriched environment” that had lots of open space and lots of toys (and other rats) for the rats to play with.
The second environment was an impoverished environment: no toys, limited space and only a couple of rats in the cage.
She then compared the brains of the rats from each environment.
The rats from the enriched environment had a thicker outer covering (cortex of their brain). Plus their brain experienced greater angiogenesis (the physiological process through which new blood vessels form from pre-existing vessels.) Or in other words, their brains got bigger.
At the time Diamond didn’t come to any definitive conclusion as to why the enriched environment rats experienced an expansion in the brain size. It was only years later in the 1990’s when scientists examining her work concluded that the brains were enlarged because the rats in the enriched environment were able to get more exercise.
Suzuki uncovered more research and became so fascinated with it that she shifted the entire focus of her research from the study of memory in the hippocampus to the effects of exercise on brain functions in people. In March of this year her book Healthy Brain, Happy Life was published.
Another thing she noticed about herself beside the improvements in her mood, attention and memory was that she seemed to have a newfound spark of creativity.
She says she found it easier to come up with new “out of the box” neuroscience courses to teach. She started exploring new hobbies like writing and singing. She even started seeking out collaborations with artists, musicians and dancers.
Because of the burst of creativity that she was experiencing, she wanted to see if there was any research available that linked exercise with enhanced creativity. It turns out there is a definite connection.
A 2013 study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience showed that people who exercised on a regular basis did better on tests of creativity than their more sedentary peers.
Regular exercisers were found to have improved divergent and convergent thinking, two key components of creative thinking.
“Exercising on a regular basis may thus act as a cognitive enhancer promoting creativity in inexpensive and healthy ways,” says study researcher Lorenza Colzato, a cognitive psychologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Dr. John Ratey notes in his influential book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (2008), that exercise isn’t just about physical health and appearance. Ratey writes that it also has a profound effect on your brain chemistry, physiology, and neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to literally rewire itself). Meaning that your ability to think, create and solve are all enhanced by exercise.
For artists, writers, musicians or anyone in a field that requires a high level of imagination, regular exercise might just be the edge they need to take things to the next level of their career creatively.
And while exercise, of course, makes sense for everyone it’s nice to be reminded that you’re not just improving your physical body you’re enhancing the most important organ in your body, your brain.
Suzuki sums it up nicely when she says…
“Exercise can keep your brain healthy longer.”
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