Last weekend’s New York Times Magazine contained several articles about the mind, and all the cutting edge research out there about how to improve the mind. One article detailed how playing “n-back games” can make you smarter; another about how exercise can lead to a better brain. Several studies have detailed how exercise can improve brain function, mood, and even improve memory in the past, but the newest research seems to seal the deal: Exercise really, actually does improve your brain…and for now, I’m going to wage my bets on exercise over n-back games.
Past research has implied all kinds of mental benefits of exercise, but until recently, scientists hadn’t really parsed out the difference in effect of putting on our running shoes and, say, playing a board game. But last year, Justin S. Rhodes, a psychology professor at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, led a study that teased out the differences. Rhodes’ team performed cognitive tests on four groups of mice, then injected them with a substance that allowed for tracking neurological changes, and put them into four distinct living arrangements:
- Group 1 was fed a gourmet diet of nuts, fruits and cheeses sometimes dusted with cinnamon, served with flavored waters. They slept in colorful plastic igloos in one corner of their cage, and were given neon balls, tunnels, mirrors and seesaws to play with in another section of the cage.
- Group 2 had all of the above, plus disc-shaped running wheels in their cages.
- Group 3 had no toys or exercise equipment, and were fed standard kibble.
- Group 4 had nothing to play with but a running wheel, and was fed standard kibble—no gourmet treats.
“Only one thing had mattered,” Rhodes says, “and that’s whether they had a running wheel.” Animals that exercised, whether or not they had any other enrichments in their cages, had healthier brains and performed significantly better on cognitive tests than the other mice. Animals that didn’t run, no matter how enriched their world was otherwise, did not improve their brainpower in the complex, lasting ways that Rhodes’s team was studying. “They loved the toys,” Rhodes says, and the mice rarely ventured into the empty, quieter portions of their cages. But unless they also exercised, they did not become smarter.