The myriad physical benefits of exercise are far from breaking news. What is surprising to many people, however, are the equally numerous mental benefits. In addition to the well-documented improvements in mood and stress reduction related to a decent workout, new research is beginning to reveal just how exercise can improve overall brain function. This is specifically useful information if you have school-aged children or are still in school yourself. Honestly, though, who couldn’t use a boost in brain power?
Brain function, referred to as cognitive function in more clinical circles, is the collective result of several factors. Memory, alertness, focus, comprehension and ability to execute motor commands are all involved. Incredibly, studies have shown that even moderate exercise can improve all of these aspects of brain function.
A review of the research in the journal Trends in Neurosciences, found that regular exercise affects the physical health of the brain. The levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and other hormones that control brain growth, are increased enough by exercise to have a measurable improvement on learning capacity and mental performance. Exercise also activates genes that control brain plasticity, or your ability to retain information and adapt to new situations. These findings have led to extensive research showing that exercise later in life can slow mental decline related to aging.
But the true test of these findings came from the real-world proving grounds of the public school system. At Naperville Central High School in Illinois, students who struggled with math and reading were scheduled for physical education class first thing in the morning. Bikes and balls are scattered throughout the classrooms and teachers plan physical activity into the lessons. When the school implemented these changes in 2010, reading scores drastically improved and math scores increased by 20 percent.
These results have been duplicated in other schools and colleges. In the adult world, offices that make room for exercise throughout the day experience an increase in productivity.
Helping Children With ADHD
There are over 2.5 million school-aged children in America diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), according to Science Daily. Although medication has proven to be effective in most cases of ADHD, many of these treatments are fairly new, leaving parents and doctors worrying about long-term side effects. Cost is also a concern when it comes to medication.
A recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics offers exercise as a potential non-medical intervention, though. Children with ADHD, as well as those without the condition, scored better results on standardized tests and in games designed to test their ability to focus after exercising for 20 minutes.
Putting it into Practice
It’s interesting to note that, in the study discussed above, the children were only asked to walk at a brisk pace for 20 minutes. Long bouts of vigorous exercise aren’t necessary to achieve better brain function.
Most studies experimented with exercise in the mornings or immediately before academic testing, but this may not be possible for everyone all the time. A more workable idea may be to exercise when you can, but stick to your schedule. The regularity will also help you build self-discipline as a byproduct, which can be an important cognitive skill in many situations.
Be careful to start slowly and keep the activity to a moderate intensity, since working out too intensely can exhaust you mentally and be counterproductive.
Have you or your children experienced the mental benefits of regular exercise? Please share your experiences in the comments.