Exercise is brain food

When I was in Year 12 Psychology, I read about Phineas Gage.  On September 13th, 1848, Phineas was minding his own business as a foreman for a railway construction group.  Unfortunately, an accidental explosion sent an 113cm, 6.5kg steel rod through the front of his skull.

I think that bears repeating… through the front of his skull.

Before the accident, Phineas was an enthusiastic member of his community who was loved by all.  Afterwards, he became a recluse, unable to make decisions, grouchy and temperamental.

He walked away, but the damage done to his left frontal lobe changed him forever.

The frontal lobe is our command centre.  It stands at the helm of our brains, like Nick Fury on the bridge of the S.H.I.E.L.D Helicarrier, and is responsible for reasoning, planning, speaking, movement, emotions and problem solving.

I’m going to take a stab in the dark here and say that you probably don’t know anyone whose had a massive steel rod shoved through their brain, yet, I can almost guarantee that you do know someone who is grouchy, reclusive, poorly committed, unable to make decisions and temperamental due to a poorly developed frontal lobe.

Neuroscientist Gary Small believes that teenagers who spend a large number of hours a night playing video games are damaging the development of their frontal lobes by flooding them with instant-gratification dopamine[1].

What we then get are men and women sitting in their bath tube, at the age of 27, debating who would win in a fight, shampoo or conditioner.

Meth, cocaine, and other similar drugs also drench the brain in dopamine.  Constant exposure to them damages the frontal lobe’s sense of reward and results in an inability to accurately predict and work towards rewards on a day-to-day basis[2].

Then you end up chasing after an imaginary penguin whilst Bradley Whitford tries to steal your family fortune.

And believe it or not, we finally have an explanation for all those YOLO, SWAG and FISH memes clogging up our Facebook Feed.  Dr. Tali Sharot believes that people with ‘faulty function[ing] of their frontal lobe are optimists that see that proverbial glass as forever half full, as opposed to half empty[3].

Lower stress levels, increased optimism, less anxiety and better over-all health and wellbeing?  Sounds awesome, right?


Why?  Because you end up YOLOing and SWAGing your way into situations such as jail, unplanned pregnancy, bankruptcy, and, possibly even death.

So how do you prevent YOLOing your way into some annoying Internet meme?  Would you believe the answer is exercise?

For those young people out there, a 2008 review of literature pertaining to the effect of exercise on children’s cognitive functioning, found that “exercise training programs may prove to be simple, yet important, methods of enhancing aspects of children’s mental functioning that are central to cognitive and social development”[4] and that exercise may equip the students with the necessary mental processes to deal with school and life challenges.

For those young at heart (but more chronologically challenged), a 2009 Korean study found that, when seniors commenced an exercise program, their attention, immediate memory, delayed memory, and verbal fluency all improved[5].

And for those struggling with a damaged frontal cortex due to too many video games, movies, Facebook or drugs, a 2011 study found that exercise improved the quality of life for Parkinson’s patients (caused by damage to the frontal lobe) by improving their frontal lobe based executive functions[6].

One reason exercise may be able to prevent, or even reverse, damage to the frontal lobe is due to the release of BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) proteins.  Just like when your old SNES froze and you cringed as you hit the reset button, forever losing your progress on Mario 2, BDNF proteins protect the brain and reset it, helping us feel more relaxed and also allowing us to see solutions to problems more clearly[7].

You may not have had a piece of metal tubing surgically removed from your frontal lobe, but it’s also likely that you’ve had a 21st century rod rattling around inside your skull in the form of drug usage, Facebook, video games and other instant gratification aspects of todays media saturated world.

We’ve all known about the physical benefits of exercise, and even the psychological advantages, that endorphin kick only matched by dark chocolate, a glass of red wine and The Avengers on DVD (or is that just me?) but now you know that it also helps to not only shape your brain, but also remould it after you’ve filled it up with more junk than a fat man’s pantry (I know that’s an awful metaphor, but I’m sleep deprived, and I’m tired).

Use this information wisely you will, and smarter you will become.  Comment below, thoughts you will leave and share you must.

(I told you I was tired… at least I didn’t go pirate on you me hearty!)

[1] Small, G., Vorgan, G. iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. (2008) William Morrow.

[4] Tomporowski, P., et al. Exercise and Children’s Intelligence, Cognition, and Academic Achievement. 2008. Educational Psychology Review. 111-131

[5] Shin, MK., Effects of an Exercise program on frontal lobe cognitive function in elders. 2009.  Journal of Korean Academics of Nursing. 107-15.

[6] Cruise, KE., et al. Exercise and Parkinson’s: benefits for cognition and quality of life. Acta Neurol Scand. 2011 Jan; 123 (1): 13-9.

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