Exercise is the closest thing that humans might ever get to a magic potion or a fountain of youth. Regular physical exercise offers a multitude of benefits: building muscle is said to lower the risk of osteoporosis in women; exercise produces endorphins associated with improved mood; and exercise lowers the risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular conditions, leading causes of death in the United States. What’s even more exciting is that exercise may benefit the mind as well as the body; a “rapidly growing movement in science” that suggests that exercise strengthens brainpower.
An article in Newsweek last spring covered the research of Charles Hillman
, a self-professed “jock” who would prefer to leave the word “dumb” off the description of himself and other athletes. His research, at the neuroscience and kinesiology lab at the University of Illinois, offers evidence that could disprove old stereotype. Hillman found that the more active among a group of elementary-school students generally scored higher on state standardized tests than the less active kids.
The magical ingredient here, according to Hillman, is brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. It builds up in those who regularly exercise, causing the brain’s cells to “branch out, join together and communicate with each other in new ways.” This and other research has shown that physical activity is therapeutic. We now know that brain cells can grow and regenerate as we age, and exercising may encourage this process. In a study last year at Columbia University, also mentioned in Newsweek, researches found that the study participants, after three months of consistent exercise, “appeared to sprout new neurons.”