It’s obvious that regular exercise makes our muscles stronger, but a long list of research studies conducted over the last few years also suggest a powerful link between exercise and a healthy brain. In fact, getting the blood pumping appears to have multiple positive effects on the brain, including reduction of anxiety, increased decision-making skills and marked boosts in productivity through the entire lifespan.
Researchers think that physical exercise – especially the aerobic variety – actually changes the brain on behavioral and molecular levels, and that regular exercise triggers release of several important hormones, including serotonin, known to boost mood; norepinephrine, which affects motivation, attention span, and perception; and dopamine, which influences attention span and learning.
Exercise in the Early Years: Children and Adolescents
A few years ago, the New York Times reported on a study conducted by University of Illinois, which divided kids into groups of sedentary children and active children. The active kids performed better when exposed to a variety of cognitive challenges. MRI’s conducted on the active kids showed significantly larger areas of the brain involved in attention and the ability to coordinate thoughts and actions.
Previous studies conducted by University of Illinois indicated that even 20 minutes of brisk walking before a test raised test scores, even in children who were overweight or inactive.
Similarly, a Swedish study followed more than a million young soldiers and found that fitness was correlated with higher IQs – the higher the level of fitness, the higher the IQ. The results were apparent, even among identical twins.
Clinical trials in the United States looked at the results of after-school sports classes for children. It was no surprise that children got fitter, but kids who exercised regularly also displayed marked improvements in retaining information, multitasking and managing distractions.