Move the Body, Boost the Brain

Fitness gurus maintain that exercise is the key to happiness. You feel better, you’re healthier, you’re less stressed, you rock that great outfit and you’re one workout closer to your dream swimsuit. We’ve heard all about the endorphins and the energy boosts. All of that feels good. But few people exercise for the most compelling reason: brain health. Movement actually benefits the brain long before it impacts the body.

The connection between mind and body has been explored in depth for over 100 years. But recent brain-based research and advances in technology now enable us to see what happens in the brain when we move the body. As it turns out, gross motor movements spark brain activity. Using fMRI scans, we can see a significant increase in brain activity after just a 20-minute walk. The bonus is that this particular type of activity is generally associated with happiness. Smarter and happier? Yes, please!

While there is no such thing as one single movement center in the brain, the cerebellum controls most of our motor functions. Surprisingly, the cerebellum takes up just one tenth of the brain by volume, yet contains more than half of the brain’s neurons. The cerebellum and the inner ear work together to enable neural plasticity that actually changes the brain at a molecular level throughneurogenesis, or brain cell growth. And let’s be real… who couldn’t use a few more brain cells?

Beyond that, physical movement increases the brain’s dendritic branching process. The more branching there is, the more communication there is between the brain cells. Dendritic branching directly impacts memory, language, and cognition. Even just a quick 20-minute cardio workout before taking on a mental task will fire up the brain cells and get the creative juices flowing. However, you don’t have to work up a sweat to maximize your brain health. Here are four simple ways to move the body and boost your brain.

  1. Feed your brain. The brain demands more energy than any other organ in the body. The more active it is, the more fuel it needs. However, it neither produces nor stores the oxygen and glucose it needs for neural activity. The fuel station is in the heart. The faster the heart beats, the more energy it pumps to the brain. The more energy the brain has, the better it functions. Have you ever felt like you’re just mentally out of gas? Simple movements such as standing, stretching, lunging, or walking can raise your heart rate by up to 10% and send a little extra fuel to the brain.
  2. Create a change of scenery. The technical term is “episodic encoding,” but the basic premise is that when we learn new information, the prefrontal cortex creates a map (people, places, emotions, the context of the information, etc.) documenting the meaningful data before sending it off to the hippocampus for storage. The more detailed the map is, the easier it is to understand, apply and recall the information. If you find yourself stuck on a problem, try working on it somewhere else. Grab a notepad, find a park bench and think it through there. Or head over to the nearest Starbucks. You don’t even have to leave the room; simply changing your position in the room can add details to your brain map and impact the way you process information and give you greater insight.
  3. Give it a break. Our brains are constantly taking in information…a lot of information! The hippocampus evaluates that data and determines whether we save it or delete it. The time the brain allocates to sort and organize that information is critical. When we overload the hippocampus, we actually impinge our ability to evaluate input. Short intervals that break up the constant flow of incoming data can be enough to enable the brain to catch up and continue to process information effectively. Step away, grab a bottle of water, do a lap around the building. Let your body jump in and give your brain a break.
  4. Move to motivate. Certain kinds of repetitive gross motor movements stimulate the body’s natural production process of neurotransmitters. The brain produces cortisol to control stress and dopamine to mediate pleasure and rewards. In addition, these chemical energizers stimulate motivation, attention, and cognition. Feeling sluggish, foggy, or distracted? Go climb a set of steps, do a few lunges, or take a 5-minute brisk walk to reenergize your gray matter. Think of this as a shot of Red Bull for the brain.

Even though education has been traditionally a “sit and learn” environment, more and more educators are seeing huge academic gains by incorporating movement in learning experiences. The “movement” about movement began over 100 years ago with Dr. Maria Montessori. She maintained that mental function isn’t just connected with movement, it is dependent upon it. We’ve been proving it with science ever since.

“One of the greatest mistakes of our day is to think of movement by itself as something apart from the higher functions. Mental development must be connected with movement and be dependent on it.” -Dr. Maria Montessori

Physical activity doesn’t just make kids smarter. From the classroom to the conference room, learners of all ages can improve the way we process, store, and remember information just by moving more. Move the body and the brain will follow. Get your groove on and grow a few brain cells today!

You may also be interested in reading

Laughter Makes Us Smarter… and Other Secrets to Learning

Dr. Melissa Hughes is the founder and principal of The Andrick Group. Our mission is to engage, inspire, and educate people to increase their capacity for learning and creativity. We do this by providing tailored, dynamic workshops that help organizations improve their work by understanding how the brain works and applying that to achieve greater productivity, professional growth, and personal satisfaction.


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