When you want to make your body fit, you exercise. When you want to make your brain sharper, you also exercise? And we’re not talking about crossword puzzles or mind games here, but actual, physical aerobic exercise. Why should that be? Let’s take a look at what we know so far about the correlation between exercise and the brain.
The hippocampus, located in the medial temporal lobe in roughly the center of the brain, is the part responsible for learning and storing long-term memories; it is also the part that responds strongly to aerobic exercise. Well-controlled experiments in groups ranging from children to the elderly have demonstrated that this brain structure grows as people exercise more and become more fit. With its role in memory formation, this would explain, in part, the memory-boosting effects gained from improved cardiovascular fitness.
Exercise can also have a more immediate impact on memory formation. Researchers in Germany have shown that walking or cycling during, but not before, learning helped retention of new foreign language vocabulary. However, they caution that you shouldn’t push your workouts too hard; vigorous exercise can raise your stress levels, and that can actually interfere with both memory formation and retention.
In addition, exercise can help your concentration and ability to stay on task. A large, randomized, controlled trial in the U.S. looked at the effects of daily after-school sports classes over the course of a school year. While the children did, of course, get physically fitter, surprisingly their executive control also improved. They were better able to ignore distractions, to multitask, and to hold and manipulate information in their minds.
The critical factors that make exercise such a potent brain enhancer are still under investigation. Suggestions have included increased blood flow to the brain, surges of growth hormones, and expansion of the brain’s intricate blood vessel network. It’s also possible that exercise stimulates the birth of new neurons, which, until recently, most researchers believed could not occur in adult human brains.
Another team studying the development of the hippocampus through exercise introduced subjects to a six-week aerobic program; surprisingly, they found no evidence of a vascular change in the region. Instead, they felt the change could be better explained by an increase in myelination, encasing neurons in a fatty sheath to protect them and to facilitate their communication. The increase was reversible in the absence of such exercise. As the researchers summed up, “This is the first demonstration of a change in hippocampal volume in early to middle adulthood suggesting that hippocampal volume is modulated by aerobic exercise throughout the lifespan rather than only in the presence of age related atrophy.” 
All this research has a profound effect on education today, a period where many schools are trying to increase class time at the expense of physical education programs and recess. While no one is sure of the exact mechanism of how exercise effects the changes in the brain, the research that has shown the correlation between the two is solid, and additional research has demonstrated that exercising routinely can continue into later life, even staving off the onset of age-related cognitive declines.
Healthy kids make good learners, and good learners make successful people. Don’t we owe it to our kids to give them not only the best educational content, but the best possible chance of learning and remembering that content well?
 Schmidt-Kassow M., et al. (July 12, 2014). “Treadmill walking during vocabulary encoding improves verbal long-term memory.” Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25015595
 Hillman, C.H., et al. (October 2014). “Effects of the FITKids randomized controlled trial on executive control and brain function.” Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25266425
 Thomas, Adam G., et al. (May 1 2016). “Multi-modal characterization of rapid anterior hippocampal volume increase associated with aerobic exercise.” Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811915010721
 Sample, Ian. (February 17, 2014). “Taking your brain for a walk: the secret to delaying dementia.” Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/feb/17/brain-walk-delaying-dementia-memory
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