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By Chris Tomkinson Founder at GoVida - The Employee Wellbeing Platform

Does exercising make us smarter?

The benefits of exercise are multiple from increasing your strength to improving your cardio-vascular health to reducing stress and changing body shape, etc

But what is the impact of exercise on the brain?

The brain, protected by our internal helmet (skull), is the most complex organ in our body and also our control centre so it make sense that we should not only look after it but develop and enhance it.

A recent study, conducted by Columbia University, found that regular cardio-vascular exercise improved executive function which relates to the cognitive processes that we use to self-regulate and control behaviour. An improvement in this function results in the increased ability to plan, to multi-task, improve short-term memory, to listen and pay attention and in controlling emotions.

Numerous studies have also shown how brain activity increases following cardio-vascular exercise. A 2009 Hillman Castelli study compared brain scans when undertaking a cognitive test after sitting for 30 minutes against walking for 20 minutes. The walking group’s brain scans showed significantly more activity than the sitting group.

Brain Scan

Yellow/Red indicates more activity, blue indicates less.

A Texas Youth Fitness Study compared the fitness scores of over 2 million students with their Texas Standardised academic test scores. Results showed the higher the fitness levels the higher the academic scores.

This impact in brain function seems to be due to cardio-vascular improvements. The brain does not have an energy storage capacity and relies on our cardiovascular systems to deliver nutrients, mainly oxygen and glucose through our blood stream. In simple terms the efficient nourishment of the brain improves its function.

Traditionally cardio-vascular training would be based around exercising at a heart rate sustained between 60-75% of its maximum for 20-30 minutes – 3-4 times per week. Your approximate maximum heart rate is calculated using 220 minus your age.

Estimated Max HR= 220-age

Eg If 40 years old your estimated max heart rate would be 220-40 = 180bpm and 60-75% of this gives an exercising target range of 108-136bpm

Intermittent exercise like strength training can also improve your cardio-vascular fitness where blood is pushed into the working muscles and heart rate increases.

Sound cardio-vascular fitness supports cognitive activity and helps prevent decline as we age.

My simple tips would be:

  • Keep active in your day aiming for a minimum 5,000 steps
  • Avoid prolonged sitting for over an hour in any one period
  • Carry out an activity you enjoy that raises the heart rate for a minimum of 20-30 minutes 2-4 times per week

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