As far back as I can recall, I loved (and relatively excelled in) athletics. I have kept this up through the years: tennis (until my shoulder started aching in my 50s) and basketball still today (my early 70s). As all athletes know, sports activity is a mood enhancer – you feel great after working up a sweat. But who would have thought that intensive physical activity could also be a brain-intellect enhancer? Well, recent research has discovered some very interesting things about the body-brain connection…
We can start at the very beginning. Eons ago, our forefathers and foremothers did lots of walking, running, and other physical activities just to stay alive – mostly in the hunt for meat. (Yes, women too; it was reported recently that female bones were found buried with full hunting paraphernalia.) So, it stands to reason that the human body would evolve in such a way as to prioritize the ability to move quickly and for long distances – the better “proto-athletes” had a better chance of survival, and thus more progeny.
If hominids have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, and homo sapiens for one or two hundred thousand, then “modern” humans – the sedentary ones sitting in office all day, or worse, “couch potatoing” in front of a screen of one sort or another – are not doing what our body was designed for.
However, it turns out that not all types of “exercise” are equal. Let’s take a simple comparison: running on a treadmill vs. jogging in the park. The former is excellent for keeping your body in aerobic shape – good for your heart, arteries, and some leg and arm muscles. But the brain? No benefit there. On the other hand (or leg), running outdoors is different – especially for the brain. The reason is simple. On a treadmill, there isn’t much thinking we have to do; it becomes almost automatic – one leg in front of the other, on and on…. But outside? We have to keep track of the following: not tripping on some hole or object on the ground; where we are going (to avoid getting lost, or how to get back to where we started); not bumping into other people or a pole. We are also receiving far more stimuli: birdsong, animals scooting around, people doing interesting things, flowers blooming, etc.
In short, when we’re running outside, we are basically copying the same experience our fore-parents underwent, thereby keeping not only their bodies fit, but their brains as well. Indeed, to continue the “evolutionary” description I mentioned earlier, those who exercised their mind in the long hunt were also evolving in a positive, cognitive direction – and not just improving their physical capabilities.
What about sports? Is the above description also germane to competitive sports? Is the sky blue?? If anything, competitive sports is even more brain-enhancing than running outdoors. Just think (pun intended) of everything a sport demands of the player: cooperate with teammates (in group sports), follow the direction of a ball and coordinate the body with its movement (catch the ball, hit it, kick it etc.), think of our next tactical move within a broader strategy – all this while running around and not being certain of our opponent’s next counter-move!
Many athletes are vaguely aware that competitive sports are not merely a physical activity but demand mental exercise as well. However, until very recently, no one was able to show that such physical activity had a highly positive effect on our brain in the long run. Now researchers have begun to do controlled experiments with people, using MRI brain scans to test “before” and “after” effects (usually mid-term – a few weeks – and not one-time exercise) to see what happens in the brain. Without boring you with the neurological details, it turns out that consistent athletic/sports activity of the type I described here improves our memory and general cognitive functioning – indeed, it can slow down or even hold back gradual dementia!
And please don’t say “it’s too late for me, I’ve been sedentary all my life”. It turns out that it is never too late to start exercising. Sure, you’re not going to win any Olympic medal at this stage of your life, but in the “race of life” you can certainly extend your own “finish line”! That’s quantitatively (lifespan) and qualitatively (brain and body functioning).
How much time does one have to “invest” in this? For medium exercise (e.g. fast walking – break a sweat, get the heart rate up just a bit), 150 minutes a week; for intense exercise (e.g. running, full court basketball), 75 minutes a week – that’s a mere 10-12 minutes a day!
Too much “work” for you to keep your brain in shape? Then consider this: in 2016, a large-scale study found that very active people were much less likely to develop thirteen different types of cancer than people who rarely moved! Indeed, an ever more recent research study (American College of Sports Medicine) discovered that regular exercise can reduce the risk of developing some cancers by as much as 69 percent – and also might improve the outcome of cancer treatments, thereby extending cancer patients’ lifespan!! If you want to read more, see this: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/11/well/move/how-exercise-might-affect-immunity-to-lower-cancer-risk.html?surface=home-discovery-vi-prg&fellback=false&req_id=652281408&algo=identity&imp_id=710516562&action=click&module=Science%20%20Technology&pgtype=Homep
Ah yes, one more thing to consider: exercise also aids in losing weight – another life extender. But that’s a topic for a different day. For now, I trust I’ve given you some food for thought with regard to the connection between exercise/sports and mental/bodily health.