Exercise has been shown to increase attention
span in kids, reduce depression, boost memory in
middle-aged and older people, and increase
ability on complicated mental tasks. Research
has also shown that regular exercise helps
protect your brain as it gets older particularly
helping memory and intelligence (they often use
the word cognitive ability). For example,
exercise decreases the rate of diseases like
Alzheimer's. The findings have been quite
dramatic, but it is important to remember that
this research is done under specific and
That said, it is probably safe to assume,
given the wealth of studies, that regular
exercise is good for your brain and helps keep
you sharp. There are many theories about how
this happens; one theory, particularly for the
protective effects in older people, is increased
blood flow from exercise also gets extra blood
to the brain. However, anything involving
phenomena like intelligence and memory is very
complicated, so there are likely many things
that take place.
addendum to this answer
It seems that a robust study published two
days ago (June 6th, I know!! Super recent!)
found that exercise does not help with
depression. The results were very surprising to
researchers in the field, and the study has, of
course, generated considerable debate,
particularly among sufferers of depression who
have found exercise very helpful.
Yes, physical health can affect your ability
to learn in many ways! In general, being in
better physical health means better learning.
This goes for both illness and physical fitness.
First, being sick affects your ability to learn
because it's so distracting. The human brain can
only do a limited number of things at once, so
if you're using your brain to think about how
your body aches and you need another tissue,
then it's very difficult to also concentrate on
homework. Even when you try not to think about
how bad you're feeling, your brain may still be
distracted. Researchers have shown that having a
cold makes you less alert and slows your ability
to react to things. Colds and other respiratory
illnesses also make it harder to pay attention
to something for very long.
Second, being active greatly increases your
ability to learn. You may have heard that the
human brain can't grow any new brain cells. This
is generally true, so you should take good care
of your brain! However, researchers have
recently made a fascinating discovery-- you CAN
grow new brain cells in one part of your brain.
The dentate gyrus of the hippocampus is a part
of the brain involved in forming new memories.
Scientists have shown that you can grow new
cells in this part of your brain by exercising!
So next time you're studying for a test and feel
like you can't learn anything else, go outside
and exercise. You'll help your body and your
Cotman, C. W., & Berchtold, N. C. (2002).
Exercise: a behavioral intervention to enhance
brain health and plasticity. Trends in
Neurosciences, 25(6), 295-301.
Hall, S., &Smith, A. (1996). Investigation of
the effects and aftereffects of naturally
occurring upper respiratory tract illnesses on
mood and performance. Physiology and Behavior, 59
Smith, A., Thomas, M., Kent, J., & Nicholson, K.
(1998). Effects of the common cold on mood and
performance. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 23(7),
Yes, absolutely - remember that your mental
attributes are a product of your physical body,
particularly your brain and nervous system. If
your brain and your nervous system are getting
plenty of oxygen and sugar and the right
hormones, they will function more effectively,
but only if you are in good physical health.
This is why saying that 'the brain controls the
body' is something of a mislabel.
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