It’s True, Working Out Makes You Smarter

We used to think that if you wanted to grow your brain you learned a musical instrument or another language. But, as renowned neuropsychiatrist John Ratey explains, the science now shows conclusively that being fit is as good for your mind as your muscles.

What exactly do we know about movement and our brains?

Every year we learn more about how the body affects the brain. Certainly the brain controls the body, but when we work out we are using more brain cells than in any other human activity. We now look at the brain as a muscle, one that we can build through movement, which will make our brain cells stronger and more resistant to stresses down the road.

Movement changes the amount of oxygen the brain gets, the blood flow to the brain, but also the chemistry of our brain. When we workout we’re changing the levels of endorphins, endocannabinoids, dopamine, serotonin, GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid, a neurotransmitter linked to mood and muscle tone)—there’s more of all the good stuff. There’s also more BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which I call the brain fertilizer because it’s really important for the brain’s development, for its growth, as well as protection against stressors such as aging. The more we have of this stuff, the better our brain functions.

At a glance: movement and the brain

What are the main ways the brain is affected by movement?

The first way movement works is that it improves our brain system: our attention system, our memory system, our motivation system—all those systems are boosted when we’re working out or after we’ve worked out.

There are also the chemical changes in the brain environment I just described that occur in response to movement. Our brain cells, 100 billion of them, are swimming in a cerebrospinal fluid, which is enriched with all kinds of positive factors that help the brain grow when we’re active. We’ve known since 2000 that to learn anything and to encode new stuff in our brain, our brain cells need to grow, and movement promotes the best kind of environment for our brain cells to grow in, better than anything else we know of—better than drugs, or than any other human activity.

The third relates to a process called neurogenesis, the making of new brain cells. We only just discovered that we continually make new brain cells throughout life in 1999, and the biggest promoter of that is movement. We grow brain cells in different places in the brain, but a major place is one of our key memory areas, the hippocampus.

What’s the connection between movement and psychological resilience?

Movement helps with what we call emotional regulation, with mood and anxiety, and it makes our brains more resistant to stressors. Stress comes from the experience of being threatened, so we turn on the sympathetic nervous system and get ready to fight or flee. If you’re fit, it takes a bigger threat from the environment to begin the stress response—people don’t freak out as much or as quickly if they’re in a high degree of fitness.

We now know that some of the new brain cells produced in the hippocampus in response to movement include the brain’s major inhibitory or “brake” neurotransmitters, such as GABA, which can stop you from going into a state of anxiety in response to a stressor. Anxiety is a self-generating kind of phenomenon: You get worried, then you get more worried because you’re worried and it’s a whole negative spiral. GABA helps put the brakes on.

The traditional model of psychiatric treatment used to be weeks or years on the couch. You’re a psychiatrist, but you’re saying it’s better to get off the couch?

There’s still room for spending time on the couch and seeing your psychiatrist to get things untangled, but if you get moving, you’ll feel better. Many of my patients are much better because they did just that.

And a lot of people today want to find alternatives to medicine; they can put their shoes on and go to the gym as an alternative. Movement can help people be better masters of their own fate. But many times, you have to show them how it works and why it works. My book “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” (Little, Brown and Company, 2013) provides real stories of people who have conquered various problems through movement, whether it’s anxiety or depression or a craving for addictive substances.

You recommend movement as a treatment for a range of addictions, but is that just replacing one potentially addictive activity for another?

You could say that. But what you’re doing is changing the brain so that you reduce the cravings for whatever the addictive substance is—marijuana or cocaine or cigarettes or alcohol, or even the craving to grab your cellphone and see if somebody still loves you. When you are in a higher state of fitness you don’t have as many cravings, and more control over whatever you’re addicted to.

Does it have to be cardiovascular or high-intensity training?

All types of movement are useful. We have more evidence of the benefits of aerobic training in animal models, although we also have data on people who are into strength training and yoga and dance, all of which have an effect on the brain and on the same areas of the brain. It’s just that aerobic training has been studied more, so we have more data. I used to say that it’s hard to get a mouse or rat to lift weights, but we now have experimental protocols for rats and mice to climb pulling a weight behind them, and measuring the changes in their brain. Of course it’s hard to get rats and mice to do yoga, too …

But every bit helps. Using the standing desk at work is great, too. Having quick movement breaks is great—you can do squats, leg raises or push-ups by your desk if you’re up for it. Or run up and down the stairs; or walk up and down the stairs and then start running up and down the stairs.

So working out makes you brainier—I never thought of Einstein as someone who did a lot of working out.

He was a bike rider, he walked all the time and he was a passionate sailor. So he was physically active as well as being intellectually active. I have a slide that says Einstein thought of his theory of relativity when he was riding his bike. Although that’s probably not true …

Going back to all those studies that show you can actually see physical evidence of changes in the brain as a result of cerebral (rather than physical) exercise …

You can see changes in the brains of musicians and people who have learned another language from an autopsy, or from an MRI or a PET scan, but you see the same growth with people who work out versus people who don’t. If you learn anything your brain changes. The point is that if you work out, you’ll learn quicker and better.

Best-selling author, John J. Ratey, MD, is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an internationally recognized expert in neuropsychiatry. He has published 11 books including “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.” His latest book, “Go Wild(Little, Brown and Company, 2015) explores how we can achieve optimal physical and mental health by getting in touch with our caveman roots, and “re-wild” our lives.

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Photo credit: Courtesy of Les Mills