Think Better: Exercise

Exercise is the most effective way to improve memory and attention. For years we have known that exercise seems to protect against memory disorders like Alzheimer's disease. People who exercise regularly are 50% less likely to develop dementia.  Now we know one reason why:  when we exercise, new brain cells are born in the hippocampus- the brain's gateway to new memories.

This finding is remarkable because until not so long ago, neuroscientists assumed that humans were born with a certain number of brain cells- and that was it throughout one’s life. Now it’s clear that new cells are born throughout our lives, in the area of the brain responsible for laying down new memories, and this process is triggered by exercise. When we exercise- and it has to be enough to really sweat, neurogenesis- or the birth of new cells- is the result.

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Use it or lose it:

Even more interesting: animal models suggest that the cells that are born may die within a few days unless the brain is challenged to learn new information. That is, it appears that the cells are born “just in case” they are neededWhen you both exercise and use your memory, the cells become permanent.So in order to improve memory function, It makes sense that we should BOTH exercise and engage in activities that challenge us to think and remember. Get the brain cells multiplying, then make sure those new cells stay around.

Sprout new connections:

In addition to stimulating new brain cells, exercise also increases BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) which leads directly to brain cells binding to one another. Synapses, or connections between cells become more dense.   We think better because our capacity to make connections is literally improved. BDNF stimulated connections are an important factor in creating long term memories.

What you eat may influence how DBNF and exercise effect your thinking.  High fat diets have been shown to block new brain cell growth. Eating foods high in Omega-3 fatty acid, like salmon, encourages new cell growth and connectivity.

Pay better attention:

Aerobic exercise- and you need to get your heart rate up- also leads directly, and immediately to improved focus and concentration.  Following a half hour of strenuous exercise, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex works harder to resist distracters and performance on tests of attention improves. Studies also show that immediately following exercise, problem solving, memory, and attention improve.  

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Exercise directly improve's your child's capacity to learn:

The research is compelling.  Regular, sweaty exercise helps us think better by stimulating new brain cell growth, increasing connections between cells, and improving attention.  Why not give these advantages to our children? An hour of vigorous exercise per day will allow your children to focus better in school and while studying. Exercise allows them to retain more information.  And, as a great side effect, exercise will even out their moods, improve sleep patterns, and build self confidence.  

Exercise and ADHD:

Children with attention deficit disorder significantly benefit from daily intense exercise- and not just because they are too tired to be hyperactive!  Exercise directly stimulates the dorsolateral prefronal cortices- the brain regions in the frontal executive network responsible for focus, concentration, organization, and planning.  When this area of the brain works harder, your AHDH child focuses better.  This is the same area of the brain effected by Ritalin based medications. If your child is on medication for ADHD a regular exercise program could improve its effectiveness.  If you are looking for a treatment for ADHD that does not involve medication, exercise is a clear and powerful choice.  

For schools and coaches:

There are several online organizations and foundations with the goal of spreading the word about the benefits of youth fitness.  Consider "A Running Start" through the New York Roadrunners organization (the group that brings us the New York Marathon).  Also consider PE4life (PE for life) an organization dedicated to improving youth fitness through cardiovascular PE. 

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For families and individuals:

Exercising as a family is a wonderful way of improving everyones' health, mood, and learning potential.  If you would like assistance setting up an effective exercise program, consider hiring a personal trainer for several sessions.  Getting and staying moving is a habit.  Like any habit, the first several weeks are the most difficult.  Having a professional come to your home at a scheduled time is a great motivator.  And then, just like brushing ones teeth, exercise becomes a necessary part of everyday life.  Jennelle Nadeau is a good choice in the greater Boston area.   

Read this book:

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For a wonderful summary of the research connecting exercise to improved memory, attention, and mood, I highly recommend the book Spark By John Ratey, MD