Can the Gym Make You Smarter?

How working out can improve your memory, concentration and potentially delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease

Author: Jasmine Bains
Artist: Minjia (Erin) Pan
Editor: Sara Maria Majernikova

We’ve all been taught about the physiological benefits of exercise, ranging from improved cardiovascular health to decreased obesity rates. These benefits reduce the risk of developing diseases, such as cancer and diabetes. Some of us might even be aware of the psychological benefits of physical activity due to its ability to trigger an immediate release of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, which almost instantly improve mood. However, did you know that the gym can actually make you smarter?

Better concentration and focus?

Cardiovascular activity increases your heart rate, therefore pumping blood at a faster rate around your body, including to your brain . This increase in blood flow to the brain “fires up neurons”,so that they become more ready for neuronal activity and neurotransmitters can diffuse across synapses more quickly. This helps to promote cell growth especially in the hippocampus, thereby increasing its volume. This increase in volume of the hippocampus is extremely important, and has many short- and long-term benefits. Simultaneously, this increase in blood flow also helps maintain a steady influx of nutrients into the brain, which helps improve cognition and promote brain functions that are vital to learning, such as memory. As a result, studies have shown that a single workout can improve your concentration and focus for the next two hours of studying .

Improves short-term memory

The temporary increase in size of the hippocampus after a work-out can enhance short-term memory. The hippocampus is an important area in the temporal lobe in the limbic system, which plays key roles in memory and learning. Therefore, if you learn new information straight after a workout, you have a better chance of recalling it later on.

Boosts long-term memory

Exercise can also boost long-term memory  and increase synaptic plasticity. The more vigorous the form of cardiovascular activity, the more significant the BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) elevation (McGregor, 2021). BDNF is a vital protein for learning due to its ability to trigger synaptogenesis (formation of new synapses) and increase synaptic plasticity. This allows the formation of new memories, as well as strengthening connections of pre-existing synapses by permanently increasing the volume of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.

Can exercise delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and could it be a potential form of treatment in the future?

So far we’ve only explored the neurological effects of exercise that create minor benefits for students like ourselves – but what if these simple lifestyle adjustments could support long-term effects and help delay the onset of neurodegenerative diseases?

Alzheimer’s disease often develops due to the accumulation of beta-amyloid and tau protein which form plaques and neurofibrillary tangles respectively. This leads to the overactivation of microglia and astrocytes in an attempt to clear the accumulating cellular debris. However, as a result, this mechanism also causes chronic inflammation and instigates the degeneration of synapses. These aggregations and deteriorations seem to target the neocortex and hippocampus –  the brain regions most associated with memory. This drives memory loss –  one of the typical symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. 

However, since exercise is able to increase the volume of the hippocampus by increasing synaptogenesis and neuroplasticity, it takes longer for these synapses to be attacked. This helps delay the onset of symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases. Exercise is also being considered as a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Studies have shown that some patients already diagnosed with memory problems not only experienced a decrease in rates of memory decline, but actually showed improvements. For example, a study in which people aged 60 or older, who had been diagnosed with memory problems, underwent 12 months of aerobic exercise training found that 47% of these participants showed an improvement in memory scores compared to the rest of the participants who did not undergo the aerobic activity programme. Brain imaging studies of the first group of participants showed an increase in blood flow to the anterior cingulate cortex and the hippocampus, thus displaying the improvement in memory function (Thomas, 2020). Scientists are now looking to conduct further research specifically involving Alzheimer’s disease patients in order to determine the extent to which exercise could be considered an effective treatment for this neurodegenerative disease.

Whilst going to the gym might not make you ‘smarter’, it can definitely improve your short and long-term memory, concentration and perhaps even delay the onset of neurodegenerative diseases. So, the next time you are struggling to find the motivation to work-out, maybe you will remember some of these neurological benefits alongside all the typical physiological gains and decide to head to the gym. 

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