How to improve your brain power by exercises

You might think that the way to improve your intellect and your ability to remember and concentrate is to exercise your brain by reading lots of books. Surprisingly, that may not be enough. Read this article to know, what to do to sharpen your memory?

Research and studies

New research provides strong evidence that physical fitness — particularly cardiovascular fitness — not only affects the brain, but may even help new neurons grow.

This means that a regular regimen of running through the neighborhood or tackling the exercise bike at the gym not only improves our performance physically, but also mentally. Scientists even have an idea why: Exercise may boost the release of a substance in the brain, called brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), that strengthens neurons and improves brain function.

About 10 years ago, the first study seeking to prove that physical exercise benefits more than just the body began. In 2003, Ingegerd Ericsson of Sweden's Mahnä University started the bulk of her work on the Bunkeflo Project (named for the Malmö suburb where the study was conducted). Over the course of nine years, she observed 220 students in the first through third grades. Ninety-one of the students had only two gym lessons each week; the other 129 children had a gym lesson every day, and also could choose to have one additional gym session per week to focus on motor skills.

As expected, the students who took more gym lessons had better motor skills than their peers. They also re-trained those skills over a period of time. When the students were tested again in the ninth grade, those who had taken extra gym classes had a 7 percent decrease in motor skills compared to their earlier scores, whereas the control group showed a decrease of 47 percent.

But Ericsson's observations contained a surprise: The extra gym lessons had a major effect on the children's ability to concentrate and on their performance on schoolwork. By the time they reached the second grade, the male students taking more gym lessons were noticeably better at reading and writing Swedish and English, and they also showed a greater ability in solving math problems. Overall, these children received higher grades than classmates who spent less time in gym lessons.

Cardio boosts intelligence

The connection between physical fitness and brain performance was further documented in another Swedish study, published in 2009 by Michael Niisson and Georg Kuhn from the University of Gothenburg. This time the test subjects were 18-year-old men who were about to enter military service — more than 1.2 million participants in all, representing 97 percent of all Swedish men born between 1950 and 1976.

The young men were subjected to fitness and intelligence tests, along with mental tests measuring their ability to solve logical, verbal and spatial problems. The results showed a clear linear connection between their performances on the two tests: Cognitive ability in creased with cardiovascular fitness.

The study also helped the scientists develop a formula to show this correlation: For a 155-pound man, a maximum output of 20 watts on an exercise bike corresponded to an increase of one point on the intelligence test.

To test the validity of this theory, Niisson and Kuhn reviewed the young men's grades and fitness ratings from three years earlier, when they had finished school. The scientists discovered that the young men who had improved their physical fitness in the past three years also had improved their cognitive scores, whereas those whose physical fitness had deteriorated had not.

However, when the scientists compared the intelligence-test results to muscle strength, the result was very different. Only the weakest of the men improved their scores by building muscle strength, and once they had increased their muscle strength even slightly, working out no longer yielded significant improvement. So if you want to perform better mentally, don't limit yourself to bench presses — engage in any activity that increases your heart rate.

A series of less-extensive experiments shows a similar connection between cardiovascular training and mental performance. Most of these, which included participants from children to elderly people, measured the effect of exercise carried out at heart rates of between 50 and 60 percent or between 60 and 75 percent of the subject's maximum pulse rate during a set period of time — the equivalent of walking at a quick pace or running at a slow jog.

A collaboration between U.S. researchers, led by the University of Pittsburgh, found that elderly people are better at memory tests when they are in good physical shape, particularly when they take part in some form of regular aerobic exercise. The reason seems to be that the fitter subjects showed more activity in a region of the brain called the hippocampus, the deterioration of which leads to memory problems. Regular exercise was shown to increase the size of the hippocampus by 2 percent.

This indicates that exercise helps certain brain centers perform optimally — a conclusion also reached by Catherine Davis from the Medical College of Georgia at Georgia Health Sciences University. In a 2011 study, she demon started that overweight children between the ages of 7 and 11 scored better on a cognitive test when they exercised before taking it. As part of the experiment, one group of children completed a 13-week training program involving 40 minutes of exercise a day, a second did the same with 20 minutes of daily exercise, and a third, the control group, performed no exercise.

In 2009, Professor Charles Hiilman from the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign had demonstrated that long-term training isn't necessary in order to obtain a mental benefit. Taking just a 20-minute walk immediately before a reading test was enough to improve children's scores by 5 percent.

A year later, Hiliman and his colleague Laura Chaddock discovered that the beneficial effect of exercise on brain activity means that the brain gets bigger. The scientists examined 9- arid 10-year- old children who were divided into two groups: those with good physical fitness and those who were less fit. Using an MRI, the scientists scanned the different structures in the subjects' basal ganglia, which coordinate the activity between the parts of the brain that help control where we direct our attention and control our movements. Three of four structures of the basal ganglia were markedly larger in the children who were in good physical shape.

Exercise also improves memory

Physical fitness doesn't just affect the size and performance of children's brains: Scientists have also shown the connection between physical and mental fitness in the elderly by looking at the part of the brain called the hippocampus, which gets smaller with age, resulting in a deteriorating memory.

In a 2009 study from a joint effort between the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, psychologists showed that the level of physical fitness of a group of elderly people, none of whom suffered from dementia, was closely related to memory performance and hippocampus size.

In the experiment, the researchers investigated the relationship between physical fitness, memory and hippocampus size via an exercise in which the participants were asked to remember the position of a series of one, two or three dots that appeared on a computer screen for a split second. The re- suits showed that the size of the test subjects' hippocampuses was directly related to how fit they were: The fittest of the elderly subjects, who had the larger hippocampuses, performed the best.

Scientists know that the brain is plastic — it changes constantly as neurons create new links to one another, and some parts may grow or decrease. These changes are closely linked to learning: Every time you learn something or acquire a new ability, this knowledge is stored in the brain by neurons growing and changing in different ways.

So if being in good physical shape supports mental performance, and if mental performance is connected to the size of specific brain centers, you would expect that exercise would make the brain grow and increase its capacity.

The same researchers who studied the hippocampuses of the elderly patients decided to test this theory in 2011. They took 120 individuals who, on average, were in their late 60s, did not regularly exercise, and averaged less than 30 minutes of movement a day, and divided them into two equal groups. The subjects in the active group were asked to take a brisk 40-minute walk daily, ultimately sustaining a heart rate between 60 and 75 percent of the maximum. Those in the passive (control) group performed only stretching and balance exercises that did not increase their heart rates to this level. Using an MRI and a memory test, the scientists examined the effect that exercise had on the subjects' hippocampuses and memory. The results were striking: In the passive group, the hippocampus gradually became smaller, losing more than 1 percent of its original size over the course of the yearlong experiment. But in the active group, the hippocampus grew by roughly 2 percent. The subjects' memory function improved as their hippo- campuses grew, and it decreased in those whose hippocampuses shrank during the course of the experiment.

This indicates that even moderate levels of cardiovascular exercise can cause the brain to grow and also allow it to perform better, but how' to find the answer, the researchers measured the amount of a substance called brain- derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) in the blood of the test subjects. BDNF is a protein that helps neurons grow, develop and maintain themselves; it's created in the brain, where it helps neurons to survive, and also triggers the development of neural stem cells into neurons. BDNF is particularly active in the hippocampus, where it plays an important role in memory function. Lack of BDNF is linked with Alzheimer disease, depression and memory problems.

The scientists demonstrated that BDNF levels in the blood were linked to the size of the hippocampus for the high-activity test subjects — just as memory and cardiovascular fitness were. Scientists think that better physical fitness entails greater production of BDNF, resulting in a larger hippocampus and thus a better memory. Though several other studies of both humans and animals have demonstrated that increased physical activity can make the brain produce more BDNF, exactly how this happens is still a mystery.

Exercise improves children's test performance

Why are children better at solving problems after exercise? Ask Charles Hiliman, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign whose research focuses on neurocognitive kinesiology.

In an experiment Hillman conducted with 20 children around 10 years of age, he had half walk on a treadmill for 20 minutes with a pulse rate at 60 percent of the maxi mum, while the rest sat in a chair for 20 minutes. Afterward, Hiliman placed electrode on the children's heads and measured the activity of their brain waves during a test in which they were asked to tell which way the central one of five arrows was pointing. In one version of the problem, all of the arrows were pointing in the same direction; in a more difficult version, the arrows pointed in random directions.

The results showed that the children who had exercised emitted a lot of P3 brain waves, which occur during decision-making. The exercise was particularly effective in the difficult version of the test: The children showed a 5 percent improvement, and their P3 wave activity was higher. This may indicate that they gave more consideration to their answers and thus performed better.

Exercise can change the brain

Active muscles may also permanently change the way that BDNF is produced through epigenetics, which involve physical changes to DNA that have an impact on how it functions. This means that exercise may permanently alter how the body regulates its genes and the physical functions they dictate, specifically by having those genes make more BDNF.

At least this is the case in animal models. Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, discovered these epigenetic changes in 2011 by studying rats that covered just under a mile daily in an exercise wheel. The experiment showed that the exercise modified the gene in the brain that generates BDNF, making it more active, which resulted in higher BDNF production. Moreover, the exercise saw to it that the gene in the brain unfolded," so to speak, instead of curling up, making it available to the mechanism that decodes the gene.

There is still much work to be done before scientists fully understand exactly how exercise improves both memory and intelligence in humans at every stage of life, but there is no longer any doubt that it can. So the next time you want to boost your brainpower, don't just crack open a book, attempt a brain teaser, or tackle the crossword in the Sunday paper — go for a run, hit the bike trail, or take a few laps in the pool. Your mind and body will thank you.


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