No, I am not giving you homework and you don’t have to take a test.
I am also not insinuating that you are not intelligent. What I am saying is that there is a direct correlation between exercise and being smarter.
When I have a really big day coming at the gym in the mental sense, I really try to train first thing in the morning. It helps me focus and be more productive, whereas an extra 60 minutes of sleep does not.
OK, unless I have been running on five hours a night for a while. Then the extra sleep is just smart.
So how does this work? How does exercise make you smarter?
When I race, and when I am a Race Director, one of the things we talk about to the volunteers and that I tell my crew is to watch out for ‘race brain’.
Put simply, athletes in a race are stupid. They cannot notice or read signs, they get lost, they forget to eat or drink, they do really dumb things.
OK, hang on, I thought you said exercise makes us smarter.
It does, but first it makes you dumb.
Let’s look at the science. Our brain runs on glucose to transmit thoughts, memories and decisions etc. from one synapse to another.
When we are really hungry, or don’t eat carbs, brain function slows due to lack of energy. When we exercise, blood flow increases which increases the flow of glucose to all of the cells, including the brain.
This also increases the flow of oxygen, which makes more ATP (Adenosine Tri Phosphate) which the muscles and other cells use for energy. Great!
Now, as we work out the brain shifts blood flow away from the Frontal Cortex. This is the part of the brain responsible for cognitive skills – emotion, expression, problem solving, memory, language, judgment and more.
It is the control panel in a sense. (Which is why I had no memory for three days when I damaged mine in 2015).
The blood flow during exercise is moved to the mid-brain, the amygdala (survival instincts) and hippocampus (spatial navigation) which totally makes sense. You need those parts of the brain to be active when you are doing things like burpees!
It is what happens AFTER exercise that the ‘smart’ part comes in.
When we are exercising with a really good intensity, the ‘fight or flight’ instinct signals a cellular recovery process when the workout ends. (Which is yet another reason why food after a workout is so important – to fuel that recovery!)
Now at this point, there are a whole host of good things happening!
Blood flows enthusiastically back to the frontal cortex and everything is running at peak efficiency! Neurons meet fuel demands without oxidative stress, enzymes are released to clean up cellular waste and broken bits from normal cellular use and aging.
These functions are also thought to have anti-cancer and anti-neurodegeneration (brain loss) benefits. The body also releases IGF-1 (Insulin Growth Factor) which helps us grow lean body mass, and in this case, process insulin properly.
It also increases half a dozen elements in brain function to improve neuroplasticity (ability to learn), connectivity (dendrite and neuron connections for better memory) and improves the rate at which not only blood, but information flows in our brain.
For years, professional bodybuilders have been trying to find ways to supplement with IGF-1, but that has turned out to be bad.
Too much of something that does not belong there at that time in that amount from an outside source is a problem. Let your body produce its own, at the right levels for you.
Exercise also relaxes the body afterwards, which helps the brain even further by reducing the effects of cortisol (hormone from bad stress).
It also increases the release of the good stuff like serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. These are the hormones that make you feel all gooey and wonderful after a good workout. All of this can reduce and even reverse the damages caused by stress!
Scott McDermott is a personal trainer and the owner of Best Body Fitness in Sylvan Lake.
The research is clear. Exercise with intensity, then eat well, and be smarter and happier!!