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The relationship between Exercise and better Brain Development



Some individuals believe that brain games, like Sudoku or chess might lead to an increase in your IQ. Others believe it is not about games when it comes to brain performance, but rather physical exercise.

According to Dan Hurley, New York Times contributor, physical exercise helps with developing and maintaining great brain performance. As is noted in his article, several research endeavors have proven that exercising helps reduce dangerous body changes, like physical shrinkage, and even enhances our organs’ flexibility.

One particular research experiment tested four groups of mice in the following manner:

  1. The first group group ate large amounts of healthy foods and had lots of toys but not a running wheel
  2. The second group ate large amounts of foods and had lots of toys with a running wheel as well
  3. The third group ate standard dull kibble and had no running wheel
  4. The fourth group ate standard kibble and had a running wheel


The experiment showed that the groups with the running wheel had higher levels of brain development than those without the running wheel. When they did a cognitive test on these groups and examined their brain tissues, it turned out that it was not the type of food or toys given to them that helped with brain development, but rather whether or not they exercised.

This prompted quite a lot of speculation on the link between brain development and exercise and to better understand why this happened, let’s look at things anatomically.

Our brains are made up of tissue. Their function declines with underuse and age. When people hit their late 20s, they will typically lose around 1% of their hippocampus volume annually. That is a huge amount of brain power loss and is generally related to memory and specific types of learning.

By doing physical exercise, the brain’s decrease and decay will slow down or in some cases, even reverse in a way. The same stands true for muscle development – we need to exercise to maintain performance and avoid decay, hence why this connection was speculated.

This research continues the findings of a 1990 experiment, in which researchers showed that humans could have new brain cells when they hit adult age and older, through a process called neurogenesis, or the creation of new brain cells. However, they didn’t quite understand how that happened.

Fast forward to the current year and coming back to our mice experiment, scientists noticed a greater amount of new brain cells in those group of mice that exercised. This gave them a new lead on neurogenesis and a possible answer to what causes it.


Yet creating completely new brain cells is not enough to fully develop a well-functioning brain; instead, one must sync all of his/her new brain cells to be able to function normally. One way of doing this is by learning something completely new.  And by putting the very same mice through a maze challenge, scientists observed just that – having put them through a learning experience helped with syncing their brain cells.

But this cognitive activity only helped set in line all those new brain cells when they had to run the maze again, thus showing that learning, as opposed to a one-time experience, is the real driver behind this process.

The researchers also mentioned that engaging in already-known activities, but simply altering one or two details will not have the same effect. The learning experience has to be brand new.

This furthermore sheds some light on how exercising creates new brain cells, but it should be remembered that exercising is not the only activity that helps the brain rejuvenate itself. Other cognitive exercises, like exploring new places or trying out new hobbies also triggers this reaction.

All things considered, we’re still barely grasping the first details of this relationship, between exercise and brain regeneration and as such, more studies must be developed until we can get the full picture behind this link.

Nonetheless, we now know for a fact that exercising maintains a healthy brain, by reversing the adverse effects of aging. It also triggers the creation of new brain cells, needed to further develop the brain. So at the end of the day, maybe taking that 20-minute run that we’ve always said we were going to do, a few times a week, might just be one of the best things we do with our time.

Image sources:

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