It’s one of those age-old facts of life that proper exercise is necessary for proper health. Most of the modern weight-loss diets typically include in their fine print that the results they advertise occurred in conjunction with ‘proper exercise’. I think it’s safe to say that it is so obvious that if you brought it up in casual conversation, you would hear a chorus of, “Yeah, yeah, yeah” and “I know, I know, I KNOW.” But the sad fact is that even though the importance of exercise is considered an obvious fact, we still have an obesity epidemic in this country in both the adult and children populations that is escalating. High glycemic, high-fat diets at home and in schools is partially to blame, but what about No Child Left Behind?

school That may seem like an odd place to point the finger, but not so when you consider that with the added pressure of ensuring school students improve their grades and test scores, schools are shifting the focus of education from extra-curricular activities, particularly PE and Art, onto classroom fundamentals like English, Math and Science. In 2007, only 2% of public high schools offer a mandatory daily physical education class. On paper this makes perfect sense. If you give kids additional classroom time in subjects that are more difficult for them, you give them additional time to solve the problems, or increase their mastery of a subject. Unfortunately, the results have had not had the effect that educators intended. The number of public school children suffering from obesity is rapidly climbing AND their educational performance is not improving.

John J. Ratey, MD, author of “Spark; The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and The Brain” believes that two statistics are not just strongly correlated, but may even have a causal relationship. There is a rapidly growing body of research that shows that an hour of vigorous daily exercise can increase both the rate and quality of learning and classroom performance, particularly right after the exercise is when the learning benefits are most pronounced. For example, a German study in 2007 showed that people learn vocabulary words on an average of 20% faster if learned after performing at least a half hour of exercise. This is by no means the most impressive study of the subject, but definitely illustrative.

In order to grasp the breadth and scope of the more advanced studies, it is important to understand the mechanism behind this exercise/learning correlation as it relates to the brain. The brain is a large mass of fatty tissue that sits in the skull of humans. While some humans may at times act as if they do not have a brain, trust me, it’s there. The brain is made up of over a hundred billion cells called neurons. Neurons are nerve cells that have many branches and tens of thousands of connection points to receive information from other neurons. This means that the brain contains potentially quadrillions of connection points. Each one of these connection points between two neurons is called a synapse. Synapses transmit electrical impulses via chemicals called neurotransmitters. Psychiatric medications, particularly those that target mood imbalances, depression, and hyperactivity, operate by seeking to regulate these various neurotransmitters in an attempt to regulate the electrical activity of different regions of the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter targeted by anti-depressant medications because of its strong associations with feelings of well-being and contentment.

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) prevent the body from breaking down serotonin into other forms and thus increases the bioavailability of serotonin. Another common target of psychiatric medications is dopamine. This is a neurotransmitter associated with concentration, memory and learning when properly balanced. The most commonly prescribed ADHD medications are dopamine regulators, but instead of unnaturally increasing the levels of dopamine, they typically reduce them in order to prevent too much dopamine from accumulating in the brain which has been associated with psychotic disorders like schizophrenia and psychosis.

This line of thought reminds me of bloodletting in ancient medicine. The four ‘humours’ of blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile needed to be in proper balance otherwise disease was sure to follow. As crude as it appears today, this practice was extremely technical. There were certain points in the body which blood would be let from depending on which ailment was suffered. There were charts determining how much blood to let depending on the patient’s age, height, weight, weather, altitude and other factors.

The modern psychiatric medications that attempt to regulate specific neurotransmitters in unnaturally ways is crude, inconsistent, expensive, and is often accompanied by adverse reactions and harmful side effects. While I do not doubt the science of brain chemistry, I do very much doubt the long term benefits of unnatural chemistry being used to balance the natural mechanisms of brain chemistry.

Not long ago, a few decades perhaps, the school of thought about the brain was that up until a certain age, the brain developed a number of cells and then once you hit a certain point of maturity, it stopped. You then had a finite number of brain cells to work with and no more. Your brain was wired in a fixed position for life. There was nowhere to go but down.

synapseToday we know that the fixed brain model is no longer true. The brain is a constantly changing, constantly adapting, organ that evolves depending on the purpose it is used for. ‘Use’ is the key word. It is an odd concept that we may not be using our brains, but I mean it in a different context. Just because a synapse exists in the brain, doesn’t mean that it is used. We know that different parts of the brain activate depending on what one is doing at any particular moment. When we are engaged in learning, specific sections of the brains neural network activate. When physical tasks are being performed other parts of the brain light up. If a synapse doesn’t fire, or receive impulses, it doesn’t die, it just becomes ‘rusty’ in the event that it needs to be activated on a moment’s notice. A good example would be trying to pick and fluently play a song on the cello without having ever held one before. You might make some noise, but you won’t be performing in a symphony anytime soon. The same applies to unused synapses; in order for their activity to be efficient they need to be used.

There is one other step, however, to using synapses, which needs to be observed before it can run and that is a healthy supply of neurotransmitters in the proper balance. This is where physical activity becomes vitally important. The brain is surrounded and protected by a thick mesh of capillaries known as the blood-brain barrier. This barrier prevents large molecules and particles from gaining access to the interior of the brain, like bacteria and viruses. It also serves as the primary conduit for nutrients and elements needed to produce the various substances the brain needs in order to function. Vigorous physical exercise increases circulation and thus improves the continuous availability of these nutrients.

Physical activity not only increases the supply of nutrients to the brain, it also requires large amounts of brain activity, especially when the physical activity requires an element of skill and coordination like rock climbing, kayaking, mountain biking, or soccer. In fact, the more research that is conducted on the correlation between physical fitness and improved learning ability, the more absurd it becomes to remove physical education from the educational curriculum.

Over the last ten years, a number of schools have used improved physical education programs to both improve overall academic performance and decrease disciplinary problems like school violence and tardiness by significant amounts. In “Spark”, Dr. Ratey mentions a school in small-town Pennsylvania that used a revolutionary fitness based physical education program in an attempt to improve student conditions. Beginning in 2000, by 2007, standardized test scores went from below the state average to 18% above it in both reading and math. Also, there hasn’t been a single fist-fight among over five hundred students in that entire time. These results are from the change in the physical education program alone.

What about adults? One could argue that these exercise benefits are merely amplified by the developmental properties of youth and once one becomes an adult, it is much more difficult to see such results and changes. This could not be further from the truth. In fact, a number of facilities that conduct long-term care for the elderly are incorporating exercise in order to strengthen not just the physical strength of their patients, but their mental faculties as well. Mark Mattson, or the National Institute on Aging, has mentioned the strong correlation between the most common chronic ailments of the elderly and their effects on the brain. “I think the good news, if we can take it seriously, is that many of the same factors that can reduce our risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes also reduce the risk for age-related neurodegenerative disorders.” (Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, etc.)

Dr. Ratey, also mentions a number of dual purpose activities that serve both the physical and the mental aspects of aging. “Measures we would take to guard against diabetes, for example, also balance insulin levels in the brain and shore up neurons against metabolic stress. Running to lower our blood pressure and strengthen our heart also keeps the capillaries in the brain from collapsing or corroding and causing a stroke. Lifting weights to prevent osteoporosis from devouring our bones releases growth factors that make [neurons] bloom. Conversely, taking omega-3 fatty acids for mental acuity strengthens our bones. ”Starting at age forty, we lose about 15% of our brain volume until we reach 70 years-old. Then any number of degenerative conditions can accelerate the process. Brains that have been subject to fortification from continuous exercises, however, are resilient and resist degeneration, even after 70 years of age.

An interesting study that illustrates this point is a two-part study that began in the mid-1970 called the Nurses’ Health Study which began surveying over122,000 nurses every two years. Then, in 1995 researchers began conducting cognitive testing on some of the nurses which allowed epidemiologists from Harvard University to study the relationship between the level of physical activity and mental faculties of nearly 19,000 women between the ages of 70 and 81. The results were groundbreaking. The women with the highest levels of physical activity had a 20% reduction in risk in mental impairment in terms of memory and general intelligence. The least active of the group of women walked about one hour a week, and even still these women had significant benefits from this level of exercise. The average amount of exercise for the nurses was roughly twelve hours of walking, or four hours of running per week. That is a significant exercise level for women in the 70s! There are 20 year-olds who don’t commit to that level of exercise. The message is clear. In order to both bolster that mental capacity in youth, and prevent neurodegeneration in the elderly, fitness oriented exercise has to become part of one’s lifestyle. You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to see benefits from exercise. The key to efficient and effective exercise is to work within your own limits and to set goals.

heart rateOne of the leaders in fitness-based physical education, Phil Zientarski, who is the physical education coordinator for the now famous Naperville Central High School in Illinois, mentioned the first time he incorporated heart rate monitors in the PE program. Previously, his running students would be graded on their lap times. Obviously, the students with the physical advantage of height and strength would excel. When he added the heart rate monitors he discovered that some of the slower students were running at 90% of their maximum heart rate for the majority of the running period. Many of the faster students were not working nearly that hard. He realized that the focus had been on rewarding effort and the world has never been the same since. The focus is not how many pounds you can lift, or how fast your mile run is, but your general fitness level.

A study done at the University of Illinois, a psychophysiologist named Charles Hillman conducted an experiment on 216 third and fifth graders found that two particular areas of fitness had the strongest correlation with academic performance: body mass index and aerobic fitness. In other words, an optimum balance of muscle and fat, and a high level of cardiovascular and pulmonary efficiency. A correlation is one thing, but a causal link is another.

A 2007 study conducted on adults age fifty to sixty-four had them separated into two groups. One group would spend thirty-five minutes on a tread mill between testing and the other half would watch a movie. The tests were simple how many uses can you think of for a specific common object, like a brick. You can build a chimney, you can pave a walkway, etc. They were tested before, immediately after, and then again twenty minutes later. Those who watched the movie had no change in results while the group that exercised improved after just one workout. The workout was thirty-five minutes on a treadmill working at sixty to seventy percent of their maximum heart rate. John Wooden, former UCLA basketball coach who is considered by some to be the greatest coach of all time in any sport, told his players what he considered to be one of the most important elements of success. He said, “Do not try to be better than someone else. No one is better than anybody else. Just be the best that you can be, and you will be the best.” Just because Usain Bolt can run the 100m in 9.68 seconds, doesn’t mean that he works any harder than you do on a treadmill set to 4 mph for a half hour. Think about it.

walkingI hope this inspires you to make changes in your life, by incorporating exercise into your routine, or maybe even making a new routine. You deserve happiness; exercise can help.