Monday, February 11, 2013

Thinking with your legs


The Greek new it already: “A healthy mind in a healthy body”.
(entrance sign stadium of Sparta, Greece; see text circled in red).

Two years ago I have written a blog titled “Running with my mind”. It was about how we can improve our physical condition by simulating physical exercises in our mind: Simply by thinking that we do exercises our fitness increases. But how about the other way round? Does exercising influence our mental condition? Actually, I knew already that such an inverse relation exists but that was all. The theme sank to the bottom of my mind and I forgot it. But last week, I saw a little article in the science supplement of a newspaper saying that sportsmen have better cognitive functions and thicker cerebral cortices than students. I wanted to know more about it. For if it were true, I should beat them all, for I am a sportsman and a lifelong student, as my regular readers know. So I started to google the theme and what I found was very encouraging and enjoyed my mind and I should have immediately taken my running shoes, if I hadn’t had to write this blog first. It’s too much to summarize here all I found but one thing is clear: The best way to improve and strengthen your brain and your cognitive functions is not thinking, doing mental games or living in a stimulating environment, but it is running, cycling or any other aerobic bodily activity. For instance, in an experiment mice were divided in several groups. Some got special food; another group lived in a stimulating environment; a third group did nothing special; and the fourth group got running wheels (where mice enjoy exercising) and nothing more. Afterward the last group performed best when given cognitive tests. Other experiments showed that mice that were forced to work harder by using a treadmill performed better than mice that got a simple running wheel. And don’t tell me that this concerns only mice. Experiments with human test groups show the same results.
One reason why it works is that aerobic exercise stimulates the blood circulation in the brain. But there is more. Exercise helps also build new brain cells and extend neural networks. But you might reply: mental training will do this as well. That’s true, but there is a difference. Brain cells formed by mental exercise are specialized. They are only good in performing the task they were made for. However, brain cells formed by aerobic exercise are multifunctional. They are not only apt for making you run but are also for other, cognitive tasks.
And all this is not only for young people. The older brain profits also from bodily exercise, and then it doesn’t need to be running, but walking and cycling will do as well. Such aerobic exercises make the older brain younger, and slow or even reverse the decay of the brain and the occurrence of serious mental illnesses like Alzheimer.
I could mention many more experiments, but I would like to finish with this one, which I quote from a blog in the New York Times (see below for the link):
“21 students at the University of Illinois were asked to memorize a string of letters and then pick them out from a list flashed at them. Then they were asked to do one of three things for 30 minutes — sit quietly, run on a treadmill or lift weights — before performing the letter test again. After an additional 30-minute cool down, they were tested once more. On subsequent days, the students returned to try the other two options. The students were noticeably quicker and more accurate on the retest after they ran compared with the other two options, and they continued to perform better when tested after the cool down.”
So, when you want to learn something new, as a student or for another reason, want to do a complicated mental task, or are afraid to forget something, and the like, just take your running shoes or your bike, and you’ll become smarter.
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There are many websites that describe the results that I mentioned here, but this one gives a good overview: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/magazine/how-exercise-could-lead-to-a-better-brain.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
For the quotation: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/16/what-sort-of-exercise-can-make-you-smarter/. Look there also for the original source.

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