“I can only meditate when I’m walking. When I stop, my mind ceases to think; my mind only works with my legs.” -Jean-Jacques Rousseau
The human brain thrives on exercise, and its deterioration is inevitable without it. Primarily, the animal brain evolved to drive movement, with thinking emerging as a subsequent development (if you doubt this claim, watch this captivating video). As humans climbed the evolutionary ladder, our ancestors survived by engaging in deep thinking while on the move or during hunts. We are inherently wired for heightened cognition while in motion. In fact, our bodies reward regular sustained activity with improved health and enhanced brain power. If you aspire to excel in a board meeting or perform well on a test, engage in a 20-minute exercise session before the event, and witness the positive impact. Numerous studies have provided compelling evidence that physical activity enhances brain plasticity and facilitates learning. Astonishingly, certain research even suggests that simultaneous learning and exercising improve memory retention and overall cognitive function. UCLA neurophysicists report that the brain's learning-associated rhythms become stronger as the body moves at a faster pace. So, the next time you need to study for an exam or commit something to memory, consider going for a run or a bike ride. Load up your iPhone with audiobooks or informational podcasts, and review them while you work up a sweat.
Dr. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and professor of bioengineering wrote two best-selling books: “Brain Rules” & “Brain Rules for Baby”:
Science has shown exercise improves the brain in these ways:
Increases oxygen to the brain
Reduces brain bound free-radicals
Increases neurons’ creation, survival, and resistance to damage and stress
Improved neurotransmitter levels
Increased neurogenesis (the growth of new brain cells)
Decreases stress levels
A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, entitled “Effect of Physical Activity in Cognitive Function in Older Adults at Risk for Alzheimer’s Disease,” found that elderly individuals engaged in regular physical exercise for a 24-week period had an improvement of an astounding 1,800% on measures of memory, language ability, attention and other important cognitive functions compared to an age-matched group not involved in the exercise program!!!
As we all know or should know: Too much stress is a killer. The good news is exercise improves stress levels and one’s ability to deal with ‘hard’ situations. Stress brings on the hormone cortisol which in large amounts impairs your ability to learn and retain information (it also promotes fat storage). Even though exercise itself is a stress (albeit a good one) your body will become more resistant to it and increase its threshold for cortisol by consistently participating in a workout program. Exercise ameliorates stress by:
Daily exercise relaxes muscles: Being stressed causes the muscles in the body to become tense and stiff. Physical activity improves oxygen delivery to the muscles, removing tension and muscle soreness.
Exercise produces a feeling of happiness: Through the production of endorphins, exercise removes stress by creating a peaceful feeling of euphoria.
Exercise reduces feelings of frustration: Performing physical activity forces the brain to concentrate on your body and its surroundings, giving the mind a break from focusing solely on frustrations.
Exercise improves stress resiliency: People who exercise are more likely to have less of a stress reaction to adverse situations.
According to the American Heart Association, only 4% of elementary schools, 8% of middle schools, and 2% of high schools provide daily physical education programs or some equivalent. Science has shown for a fact that physical activity potentiates learning so why do we devote so little time to it in our schools? We also know for a fact that the human animal does not do well sitting for periods longer than three hours at a time. Add junk food, TV, an overabundance of prescription medications to our sedentary lifestyle and viola: over 70% of Americans are overweight and we rank 17th in the world in education.
Throughout history, many great thinkers achieved their most profound work while exercising or walking. Intellectual luminaries like Rousseau, Kant, Aristotle, Darwin, and numerous others found solace in physically engaging their bodies while working through complex problems. Striking a harmonious balance between the body and mind, solving conundrums while in motion may be the key to unlocking our true potential.
1. Fitness Effects on the Brain of the Elderly 2. Medina, John. “Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Home, Work and School”; Pear Press 2008. Buy Here 3. Nature: Exercise Effects on the Brain and Cognition 4. TED Talk: Brain and Movement 5. TEDx Talk: Exercise and the Brain