Writing in Scientific American, Justin Rhodes, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, reports that a “growing body of evidence suggests we think and learn better” when we walk, jog, or otherwise workout–though the reasons why aren’t completely understood.
Though he does have some ideas.
One key is blood flow, Rhodes says: When you exercise, your blood pressure and blood flow shoot up across your body, brain included. And since blood carries oxygen–which brains just love–you’ll be better nourished to do the things you need to do.
Another element is your hippocampus, he notes. The hippocampus plays many roles, though one of its main responsibilities is learning and memory. Exercise makes the hippocampus super active, and Rhodes notes that “when the neurons in this structure rev up, research shows that our cognitive function improves.” Interestingly, this is also why stress can be good for you: the right amount grows your hippocampus.
But to get the cognitive benefits of exercise, as the Times‘ always-excellent Well blog reports, you need to make it a regular thing—a creative habit, if you would. As Gretchen Reynolds reports, the intellectual and emotional benefits of exercise accumulate–but can quickly recede.
“The results were, in certain aspects, a surprise. As expected, many of the volunteers who’d been exercising for the past month significantly improved their scores on the memory and mood tests. But not all of them did. In general, those volunteers who had exercised for the past month and who worked out on the day of retesting performed the best on the memory exam. They also tended to report less anxiety than other volunteers.
Those who had exercised during the preceding month but not on the day of testing generally did better on the memory test than those who had been sedentary, but did not perform nearly as well as those who had worked out that morning.”
That’s a pattern that’s been found elsewhere: keeping up with regular exercise, rather than going all intense once in a while, will better promote you cognitive health–so the next time you’re deciding between the stairs and the elevator, you’ll know which step to take.