A short while ago, I realized that I am fortunate enough to work in a profession where intelligent, successful people surround me.  These people, the athletes and members of my gym, come from a wide assortment of economical, social, and educational backgrounds.  Professions in my gym range from doctors, lawyers, life coaches, real estate agents, and Marine Corps Officers.  While these members are diverse in many aspects of life, they share a communal respect for health and fitness. As a gym owner, I am naturally going to be surrounded by people who understand the value of fitness.  What I’ve found, though, is that even with such diversity, there is a common thread of overall intelligence and success.

One might argue that successful people will find ways to spend their money, and joining a gym is one way to do it.  Others might argue that these people are successful because they understand that mental health is directly related to physical health.  Regardless of what brought these people into our gym, their prior successes and intelligence, we see a positive trend in the perception of mental capacity.   We have members reporting feeling better during work and school.

What the members are describing is an increased cognitive function that directly correlates to physical exercise.  I would like to explore further how fitness can affect cognitive processes.

The Brain Connections

Every function of the body relies on an intricate communication network that starts in the brain.  Every piece of information you receive through your senses is relayed to your brain for analyzing, processing, and synthesizing.  Inside the depths of human brain, we have a network of cells that communicate electronically.  This communication system is how one part of our brain communicates with another and how information is transmitted to the body.  The cells that communicate with each other are called neurons.

A neuron is a cell designed to transmit information from one cell to another.  A neural network looks like the roots of a tree, however, a closer examination reveals that each neuron is separate from the others.  A neuron will send messages through an axon, or a long stem that extends from the cell body.  The message will travel through space called a synapse, and reach another neuron.  A neuron has a receptive area called a dendrite.  The information that is passed from neuron to neuron is called a neural transmitter.

When you learn something new you have to create a new connection between two neurons.  Early on, this connection is weak and fragile, and can be broken, causing you to forget whatever you just learned, but the more times you perform an action, the more you strengthen that connection, and the easier it becomes.  What is surprising though, is that mixing exercise in with your learning can dramatically improve the strength of this connection and how likely you are to recall that new piece of information later on.

Exercise – The Science Behind The Application

It has been shown that rats can increase the number of synapses (the connections between neurons in their brain) after completing acrobatic training.  When I say acrobatic training, I am talking about more than the hamster wheel of pain.  I’m talking about a complex assortment of obstacles requiring the rats to create ways to overcome obstacles.    This means that as we age we can improve the number of connections between cells by learning new movements.

Find an exercise program that teaches you new and complex movement. Develop skills in Olympic weightlifting, gymnastics, or acrobatics.  Learn and develop new skills, such as rock climbing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, or boxing.  The more coordinated activity involved, the more you will benefit from the affects of motor learning and the brain.

It has also been shown that physical activity in rats increased the density of blood vessels in the brain.   This means there were a greater number of nutrients supplied from the blood to the brain.  This is an unexpected, yet beneficial side effect of acrobatic feats – increased blood flow to the brain – that helps learning (developing those neural connections) that isn’t possible when trying to learn when you’ve been sitting at a desk for long periods of time.

Research also shows that exercise can help induce neurogenesis, or the formation of new nerve cells, in the hippocampus.  The hippocampus is the area brain where memories are stored.  This cell creation is due to the production of substances released during exercise called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). BDNF assists in the growth of new neurons and preventing older connections from dying off.      Our brains are plastic, which means they have the ability to change depending on use.  This neuroplasticity of our brains is referred to as “use it or lose it”.   The brain will prune away unused or weak connections.  As we age, skills we do not practice as often can be lost.

Controlling How You Learn

If you are new to training, to reap the benefits of aerobic activity, start by walking daily.  As you feel comfortable, increase the distances and the intensity.  The goal is to get your heart rate up and keep moving at least three to four times a week for 20-30 minutes at a time.  Most law enforcement, security, first responder and military jobs demand long periods of inactivity followed by periods of intense engagement.  Train this way.  Your workouts should be brief, yet intense.  If you want to engage the aerobic metabolic pathway, try interval work.  That means short periods of intense work followed by rest.  Repeat several times.

However, to truly maximize your physical and mental potential, you may want to find the minimal effective dose for exercise.  That means to find a program that will give you the aerobic benefits and motor learning benefits at the same time.  Incorporate a strength-training program for the increased benefits of metabolic and muscle development.  Incorporate functional movements that require coordination, learning, and mastery.

In Conclusion

It is clear that exercise, specifically aerobic exercise and the learning of new motor-developing tasks can increase your cognitive functions.  I don’t know if this explains why there is such a large population of successful, driven and intelligent people that frequent my facility, but it helps.

In our gym we do all of the steps I talked about above.  We are a CrossFit affiliate in Carlsbad, CA.  The athletes in our gym work on a strength-based lift, then focus on a technique-based movement and hit a short-duration high intensity workout, which is usually followed by a cool-down or a static strength building gymnastic movement.  Our goal is simple, and physical in general, to build a well-rounded athlete.  Building the smarter athlete is a beneficial side effect.

Article References:

Acheson A, Conover JC, et. al. (March 1995). A BDNF autocrine loop in adult sensory neurons prevents cell death. Nature 374 (6521): 450–3.  Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v374/n6521/abs/374450a0.html

American Physiological Society (2011, April 12). Moderate exercise dramatically improves brain blood flow in elderly women. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 17, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2011/04/110412131921.htm

Black, J, Isaacs, K, et. al., (1990, July) Learning causes synaptogenesis, whereas motor activity causes angiogenesis in cerebellar cortex of adult rats.  Proc. Nati. Acad. Sci. USA Vol. 87, pp. 5568-5572, July 1990 Neurobiology.  Retrieved from http://www.pnas.org/content/87/14/5568.full.pdf

Hubel, D. H., & Wiesel, T. N. (1965). Binocular interaction in striate cortex of kittens reared with artificial squint. Journal of Neurophysiology, 28, 1041–1059.

Raichlen, D and Polk, J (2012, Nov 21) Linking brains and brawn: exercise and the evolution of human neurobiology. Proc R Soc B. Retrieved from http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/280/1750/20122250.long

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