Recent findings in neuroscience indicate that those with the fittest bodies also are the ones with the best brains. There is a credible and growing body of information showing that exercise can make learners significantly better at learning.
For years, we accepted the myth that we are born with a finite number of brain cells and that after early adolescence those brain cells inevitably die and decline in number. It was thought that each passing year leaves us with fewer neurons and less mental adroitness — something your teenage children are certain to corroborate.
As it turns out, your kids are wrong if you are an exerciser. Research now shows that vigorous exercise can trigger the formation of dendrite webs. This “hippocampal adult neurogenesis” makes it possible to experience enhanced learning and memory throughout our lives. There is even evidence that exercise and its effect on the brain may slow down or prevent Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD and other cognitive disorders.
Since the time of the Greeks, many have held the scholar-athlete as the ideal. Cecil Rhodes subscribed to this notion when he established the Rhodes Scholarship for those who achieve both intellectual and physical excellence. Science now verifies what we intuitively felt.
Thirty minutes of vigorous aerobic activity provides an “oxygen advantage.” Exercisers experience up to 20 percent greater efficiency in oxygen transport to their brain cells than non-exercisers for a period up to 48 hours. But after two days without exercise, they begin deconditioning and lose the advantage unless they re-up their commitment to better brain functioning through another round on the elliptical machine.
Though the greatest benefits seem to derive from aerobic activity, your learners should not confine their exercise to cardiovascular exertion. Strength training also is beneficial to the intellect. Pumping iron or placing similar demands on the musculoskeletal system stimulates the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
In his recently published book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, John Ratey calls BDNF “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” Ratey’s research identifies BDNF as the substance that fuels almost all the activities associated with higher-order thought and learning.
A landmark study by the National Academy of Sciences further demonstrated that after three months of rigorous, consistent exercise, humans sprout new brain cells, overturning a century-old myth that new brain growth in aging humans was impossible. In a recent Newsweek article, Arthur Kramer, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, said: “It’s not just a matter of slowing down the aging process; it’s a matter of reversing it.”
Kramer also has demonstrated that these benefits extend to the frontal lobes of the cortex, where executive functioning occurs. This is the type of decision making, planning, synthesis and judgment that your company expects from its most sophisticated knowledge workers. Executive functioning includes the abilities that allow you to select behavior appropriate to specific circumstances, inhibit inappropriate behavior and focus on that which is most important in spite of distractions. Executive function includes processing speed, response time and working memory used to remember items, such as names and phone numbers.
Studies cited in the journal Neurology also support the relationship between fitness and effective brain functioning. In studies conducted in France, people with higher body mass index (BMI) scores — a higher percentage of body fat to lean tissue ratio — scored lower than their leaner contemporaries on cognitive tests that examined memory, attention and thought processing. The differences held up even when the numbers were adjusted for the possible influences of education level, age, gender and other factors.
Dr. David Knopman, professor of neurology at Mayo Clinic, stated that the underlying causal relationship may be based on increased levels of diabetes and high blood pressure in the higher BMI individuals, “which are more strongly and consistently linked to both cognitive decline and dementia risk.”
Another study in Neurology by researchers at The University of Edinburgh found that mental fitness in old age is closely connected to physical fitness and intelligence levels in childhood. Ian Deary, author of the findings, stated that, “Fitness contributes to better cognitive ability in old age… Thus, [of] two people starting out with the same IQ at age 11, the fitter person at age 79 will, on average, have better cognitive function.”
Exercise offers a way to reduce health care costs while extending useful productivity of your seasoned knowledge workers. Maybe it’s time for you to expand your curriculum to include gym classes.