This morning I jogged for an hour before going to work; it was still so cool and quiet outside. And, of course, it’s good for your health. But did you know that working out is also good for your brain? Scientific research has shown that kids who do sports perform better at school. There is even evidence that your memory is enhanced right after working out. The Donders Institute investigates this.
This week, Spanish researchers published an article in which they show a positive relationship between physical activity and academic performance. Among a group of 2000 adolescents they observed that the better they performed at the shuttle-run test (where you have to run back and forth as quickly as possible), the higher their grades on maths and language tests. A similar effect has been found in older people. Seniors performed better at a complex cognitive task after participating in an exercise program for a few months than they did before the program. They even performed better than a control group that did not follow such an exercise program. So, physical activity seems to have a positive effect on the brain for both young and old people.
Physical activity gives your memory a boost
Besides these long-term effects, physical activity also has immediate effects on our brains. Less is known about this, but research mainly suggests a positive effect on memory. Research in mice has shown that running in a mouse wheel a lot leads to higher concentrations of the substance BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). This substance stimulates the creation and development of brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus, a brain area that is essential for learning and creating new memories. In humans it has also been shown that there is more BDNF in the blood after working out. This indicates that exercising gives you an immediate memory boost.
Research at the Donders Institute
The question remains: how long does this effect last? Eelco van Dongen, a researcher at the Donders Institute, is trying to find this out. His participants first learn new information and then tire themselves out biking on a home trainer. Two days later they’re tested on how much information they’ve retained. If their memory turns out to be better than that of participants who did not work out after learning, it would suggest that exercising can improve our long-term memory. The study is still running, so we’ll have to wait for the results.
Physical activity is good for your brain, both in the short and long term. These effects are however rather small, so working out alone won’t make you smarter. I’ll at least keep on jogging and watching the World Cup. But the effect of watching sports on your memory is something else entirely.
Review on the effect of exercise on the brain
During the summer we will be republishing some of our best blogs that have only been published in Dutch. This is a translation of the formerly published Donders Wonders blog post: Sporten is goed voor je hersenen.