I remember in college when I asked a professor how he was able to read two books a week, he responded, “The brain is (like) a muscle. You need to exercise it. The more you do, the more you can lift.” And so I try to live that way. Sports science and psychology have been out to academically prove the links between exercise and increased awareness, or exercise and mental performance. Some scientists see our bodies outpacing our minds. With modern medicine, more people are living into their 80s, now even longer. Among other scientists, Irish psychology professor Ian Robertson took that premise and conducted research proving regular ‘mental exercise’ can provoke an older person to think with the dynamism of someone younger:
“What neuroscientists have discovered is the human brain is plastic, or shaped by what you learn, at all ages. We all know 80-year-olds who are pretty sharp and people in their fifties or sixties who have lost a lot of cognitive function.”
But reading or abstract thinking aren’t the only way to keep your brain healthy. All muscles and organs benefit from physical exercise: cardiovascular, stretching and bodybuilding. It’s been understood for a while that the brain is better disciplined and dynamic in an exercised body, but how long do those benefits last?
According to recent research, it would seem the brain is like any other muscle. If you don’t keep up your training, you’ll atrophy (muscle decay). A presentation at the 2012 Society for Neuroscience conference talked up an experiment where rats were given a number of intelligence tests, firstly during a period of regular exercise and then several weeks later after the regimen had been stopped. The results alarmingly showed that any benefit from exercise had disappeared quickly, right down to the rats’ level of alertness.
The same group of scientists demonstrated a more prominent level of serotonin with rats in earlier tests, but this experiment augments that research to say that the enduring effects of exercise are temporary, wearing off after a few weeks.
One of the researchers put it this way to the New York Times:
“Brain changes are not maintained when regular physical exercise is interrupted . . . though our observations are restricted to rats, indirect evidence suggests that the same phenomenon occurs in human beings.”
A study run by Laura Baker of the University of Washington, published in 2010, found seniors benefited tremendously from a six-month intense workout program on a regimen of nearly an hour a day for four days a week. These intense programs show clear benefit, though it’s still difficult to say what the minimum amount of exercise would be to get these mental benefits to stick for a duration of time. Other studies, if academic research is even still necessary, have shown exercise can do a lot to head off or decrease depression and anxiety.
Regardless of the level of intensity, having some sort of consistent and frequent regimen is important, intense or not. Stick with it and you’ll see benefits beyond just your muscles and skin tone.