By now, I’m sure we’ve all seen those articles linking higher physical activity to increased intelligence. But up until this point, physical exercise has been found to be a by-product of the relieving stress and adding feel good chemicals into our bodily system.
However, recent research has found that there may actually be a more direct effect and the evolutionary reason for it is fascinating.
Historically speaking, the Greeks and Romans have documented the belief that there is a strong link between exercise and intelligence. Right now it is understood that exercise induces a process known as neurogenesis (the creation of new brain cells) in a part of the brain known as the hippocampus (responsible for memory formation and spatial navigation). While exercise is creating these brain cells, they are essentially stem cells waiting to be used. So exercise isn’t creating knowledge, but rather sharpening our minds to better prepare us for learning. With this in mind, it makes even more sense to integrate exercise into your working or studying routine since it is more than just de-stressing.
So what does the new research tell us? Well – it’s not just any exercise that will create these new brain cells. In a study conducted by Finnish researchers, they discovered that only certain kinds of exercise are likely to result in the growth of new brain cells in adults. According to the research, the exercise needs to be “aerobic and sustained”. So unfortunately, this discounts weightlifting - sorry to all the gym buffs!
With all this new research, it’s hard not to ask why greater cognitive function and more effective spatial memory is met with running. Well, for now we can only speculate, but Dr Cregan-Reid from the University of Kent believes it is down to natural selection. The human body has been around for 2 million years and only in the last few thousands have we been effective map makers and can record our journeys. Without a GPS back in the dawn of humanity, it was more than likely that you could lose your tribe. With no Google Maps to do that work for you, the spatial reasoning of our brain had to be amped up to piece together where you need to be. Those people who adapted this brain cell growth response to the distance running were more likely to find their way back to their tribe to then survive and pass down these genetics to modern humans. So grab your runners and get ready to run up the stairs to knowledge, luckily for you, there’s little risk of getting lost!