Did you know that exercise is Miracle Gro for the brain? That's right! There is a family of proteins called factors in the brain that are responsible for building and maintaining the cell connections between neurons. The “big kahuna” of these factors is called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). While that is a mouthful to say, the important thing to know is that this stuff is released during exercise and it causes growth in the area of the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is in charge of long-term memory. While completing the New York Times crossword puzzle or getting a dose of Lumosity are both excellent mental workouts, you and your brain will derive much more benefit if you get your heart beating hard for about an hour beforehand. With your brain swimming in its very own special fertilizer, you are much more likely to remember the material in that Compass or Pearson lesson. It is the "single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain," according to Dr. John Ratey, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. In his book SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little, Brown, 2008), Ratey states that "the benefit of physical activity (for the brain) is far more important---and fascinating---than it is for the body".
In his book, Ratey talks about a school district outside of Chicago that implemented an optional before-school PE program that sky-rocketed 19,000 students into a fitness and smartness league of their own. The district tracked the growth of the students who participated in the program versus those who chose to sleep in and take a regular PE class. Divergent paths were immediately discerned. After seventeen years of operation, the students in the "Zero Hour PE" program scored sixth in math and first in science IN THE WORLD on the TIMSS, a test designed to compare knowledge levels of students across different countries. Put simply, it works! Exercise makes kids fitter and smarter! Remember, though, that exercise alone will not do the trick. Neuronal connections that are not used are quickly pruned away and lost, so follow that exercise with learning something new! Is anyone up for a run?