Effects of exercise on brain power
Testosterone-driven behaviour in young men might diminish somewhat over time, but its remnants appear impossible to eradicate completely.
I’ve made several confessions over the years on this page, occasionally admitting to some of my more stereotypical jock-like tendencies. Of course, us weight-lifting and muscle-building types must be on constant guard against the ‘meat-head’ stigma and strive to prove we’re good for slightly more than just hauling heavy pieces of iron around a smelly gym.
Today I admit to something else I’m a total jock about. I’m a sucker for inspirational sports movies. Like millions of other sport-oriented people around the world, I love to see the hero fall from grace and fight the long struggle back to the top, overcoming adversity and all the challenges life may throw their way.
It’s always fascinating to get a glimpse into the lives of the world’s greatest. What’s it like for those operating at the very top of their game? Do they really share the same struggles as us? What can we learn from them?
All these aspects and more left me, and many others I’m sure, thoroughly entertained as I watched what in so many ways was just like a sports movie, but at the same time couldn’t possibly be any further from the jock heaven.
In the Theory of Everything, just like a group of athletes in one of the world’s most elite professional academies, we see a world-championship-calibre brainy bunch completing their undergraduate studies at Cambridge University, preparing to embark on their post-graduate research, each capable of producing work with world-changing potential.
Stephen Hawking, the real-life professor on whom the film is based, is depicted as a young cosmologist pondering the nature of the universe. Of course life throws plenty of challenges Hawking’s way, but through it all his life is driven by his insatiable desire to keep his mind performing at the top of his game in solving the mysteries of the origins of our universe, and his body just about strong enough to communicate the workings of his mind. Both mind and body are ultimately driven by the heart of a champion.
For exercise and sport enthus-iasts like myself, it’s interesting to see intelligence and ‘brain power’ compared to the skill and physical fitness of a world-class athlete. The brain is an organ just like other body structures that are sensitive to the effects of external stimuli. Like the body, it can be trained and, like physical skill, the abilities to learn, understand or solve problems can be enhanced.
The most interesting thing about all this is not only that the two areas are quite similar, but they are actually interrelated and research has proven this link. In other words, more physical fitness is actually positively related to brain health and cognitive ability.
When we are physically active, the heart rate increases and more blood is pumped around the body. Blood therefore flows to the brain in increased quantities too.
Studies have shown a lasting increase in resting cerebral blood flow as a result of physical exercise. This basically means that more blood is delivering fuel and oxygen to the brain on a constant basis. Of course, more fuel and oxygen means better performance, but that’s not all, there’s more.
This added circulation has been found to enhance the functionality of various neurotransmitters, which are basically chemicals that transmit signals between nerve cells. Our brain’s performance level can be correlated to the active connections between these ‘brain cells’.
Researchers at the University of California support this view and have also shown that exercise stimulates the growth of new connections between cells in various parts of the brain.
Better physical fitness also stimulates the production of a chemical known as ‘brain-derived neurotrophic factor’. The substance delays cell degradation and also happens to be the active ingredient for a new generation of medication being developed for the management of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Back in 2013, at the centre for brain health at the University of Texas, researchers trained a group of 37 adults aged between 57 and 75 years, three times per week, for an hour at a time.
At the end of the 12-week period, the participants were tested and compared to a separate control group of adults who didn’t exercise. It transpired the adults who exercised performed better on memory tests and exhibited better reaction time and processing speed.
Tests carried out in 2012 at the University of Illinois in the US, on the brain of Olga Kotelko, a veteran athlete and Master’s world record holder who was 93 at the time, were compared with a group of women 15 to 20 years her junior, but inactive.
As predicted, her brain compared favourably with the younger women. Also, some of the areas of the brain most susceptible to ageing showed significantly less wear and tear than those identified in separate studies of non-active women in their 90s. It’s worth noting that Kotelko actually began her athletic career late in life, at the age of 77, proving it’s never too late to try something new.
So how can you benefit from all this? Well, it’s certainly not cosmology, or an equation only Hawking can solve, it’s actually quite simple. You can never go wrong by following national recommended physical activity guidelines. You only need about half an hour of moderate physical activity every day to see the benefits. It might not be the theory of everything, but it’s certainly a theory worth working out, in every sense.
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