When most people head to the gym, they’re usually only thinking about keeping their bodies in shape. Little do they know that their brains are getting a workout, too. Exercise can make people smarter and has a long-lasting positive effect on cognitive ability.
Most studies so far have focused on groups of older people, where exercise has been shown to reduce the likelihood of dementia in old age. One group of nearly 1,500 people was followed for 20 years. (“Leisure-time Physical Activity at Midlife and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease”) This is what they found:
Those who exercised at least twice a week during middle age were much less likely to develop dementia by the time they reached their 60s and 70s, even when confounding factors such as education, drinking and smoking were taken into account.
Other studies have shown that exercise helps with concentration and the ability to switch between tasks without making mistakes. It also leads to better grades in school. This article in the Washington Post describes a group of New York students in the top 5 percent of the fitness rankings, who scored 36 percentile points higher on standardized academic tests than students in the bottom 5 percent. Researchers suggest it could be something as simple as a positive mood boost. Exercise reduces stress and generally cheers people up, which clears their mind to help the right answer appear.
There are healthy physical changes, too. Exercise solidifies the construction of supply lines to the brain transporting nutrients and oxygen and reduces blood pressure, which protects the brain from strain. During exercise, the brain releases neurotransmitters – serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine – which are the same that antidepressants and drugs for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) work on. This is why doing a workout “is akin to taking a mix of Prozac and Ritalin,” says John Ratey, a neuropsychiatrist at Harvard Medical School.
I had only to read about Olga Kotelko to become convinced that exercise is a wonder drug for seniors. Kotelko is a 94-year-old track star who didn’t start competing till she was 77, but broke 20 world records by age 90. She is someone who has blatantly rejected the idea that old people have to be weak and fragile, with limited mobility. Of course there are some seniors who don’t have any choice in the matter, but Kotelko’s phenomenal success suggests that more seniors do have a choice than necessarily realize. If a greater number of senior citizens embraced physical fitness, then many common mental and physical problems relating to age could likely be reduced.
If your fitness-related New Year’s resolutions are lagging, hopefully this will be an incentive to stick with it. Keep in mind that a regular, intense workout routine does far more than just getting your body in shape. You could also be staving off future dementia, while making yourself fitter, and that’s definitely worth doing.