Ask people which factor contributes the most to success and most will choose intelligence, even though research shows a fair bit of luck is also required. Problem is, while it is certainly possible to “create” your own luck, ultimately getting lucky is outside your control.
But you can control – at least to some degree – how smart you are.
And you can, at least partly, control how long you stay smart.
Exercise Is More Powerful Than Thinking
Your brain is a tissue, and like any other tissue, age causes its performance to decline. As we hit our late 20s, the hippocampus – the portion of our brains devoted to learning and memory – starts shrinking by about one percent per year.
As your hippocampus shrinks, you naturally lose some of your ability to process and retain information.
But it doesn’t have to shrink. Exercise – just as it does for skeletal muscles – can slow or even reverse the physical decay of your brain. Contrary to conventional wisdom, new brain cells can be created. Research shows exercise can increase the size of your hippocampus, even in your 60s and 70s, mitigating the impact of age-related memory loss.
Or as New York Times writer Gretchen Reynolds says, “Exercise… does more to bolster thinking than thinking does.”
And then there’s this. Your brain and your muscles constantly “talk” by sending electrochemical signals back and forth. When your muscles contract, chemicals get released into your bloodstream. When those chemicals get to your brain, they help trigger the formation of new neurons, boost synaptic plasticity (think how well neurons communicate with each other), and therefore improve memory and cognition.
Yep: Stronger muscles, stronger brain.
But How Much Exercise?
Here’s where it gets interesting.
If time is a concern, a meta-review of a number of studies published in Transitional Sports Medicine determined that even “aerobic exercise for two minutes to one hour at moderate-to-high intensity improved attention, concentration, and learning and memory functions for up to two hours.”
Yet while that’s helpful in the moment, it’s unlikely to be sufficient to stave off age-related memory loss.
If you want a longer-term boost — and who doesn’t – a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that participants who walked briskly – shooting for a target heart rate of 60 to 75 percent of max – for forty minutes three times a week increased hippocampal volume by slightly over 2 percent. (Participants who followed a light stretching program experienced hippocampal shrinkage of between 1 and 2 percent.)
Of course, walking is just one way to exercise. Any form of moderate intensity exercise will do the trick.
The key is to exercise at a level that keeps your pulse between 60 and 75 percent of your maximum heart rate. In general terms, your max heart rate is 220 beats per minute minus your age. But that can vary based on your medical history, etc. So if you’re 40 years old, shoot for a target heart rate of between 108 and 135. (Or just shoot for working hard enough that it’s difficult to carry on a conversation without having to pause to take deep breaths.)
Walking works. Or jogging. Or cycling. Or weight training, as long as you don’t pause too long between sets. Or yoga or Pilates or HIIT training….basically anything you like to do, and will do consistently.
Because, as with nearly everything in life, doing the right things over and over is the surest path to success.
And in this case, to getting – and staying – smarter.
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