More great news from the world of science, and by “great” I mean news to make runners feel better about themselves. Writing in the New York Times, Gretchen Reynolds summarizes recent research that links vigorous exercise to increased neurogenesis (neuron growth) and cognitive functioning (Can Running Make You Smarter?). Better yet, the research began to look at specific mechanisms that might explain HOW this happens. While much is not known, the researchers were able to show that a protein called Cap-B, which is elevated in sore muscles after exercise, also had a beneficial impact on neuron growth in vitro experiments. No doubt, the full story will be far more complex, but for now, Reynolds writes:
“The study’s results suggest that long-term endurance exercise such as running can alter muscles in ways that then jump-start changes in the brain, helping to fortify learning and memory.“
So I have a question: why should exercise make us smarter?
It seems that almost everything in the body happens for a reason, and that systems that are intertwined are that way because the intertwining served some evolutionary imperative. So what imperative is being served by making endurance athletes smarter?
I remember the first time I heard the dismissive phrase, “No brain, no pain” used to describe a runner of — shall we say — modest intellectual gifts who ran the rest of us off our feet. The phrase was motivated by resentment and envy, but at the same time, we wondered if there was a nugget of truth there. Maybe intellectual ability and the tendency to think too much actually interfered with the ability to ignore discomfort and become a successful runner. I mean, thinking about the purpose of life won’t increase VO2 Max or lactate tolerance. Moreover, pushing yourself the very limit of your ability and maybe beyond doesn’t seem like an especially smart thing to do.
But now we have lots of evidence that those who run are smarter for it. We don’t have ANY evidence, however, that those who run fastest are smartest, so maybe “no brain, no pain” isn’t entirely wrong, but neither is it generally right. Which brings me back to my original question. Why would evolution want to make us smarter when we exercise. Wouldn’t being fitter balance the need to be smarter?
It’s fun to ask the question this way, but it’s almost certainly the wrong way to look at the issue. I think the right way to look at the issue of fitness and brains is the way Matt Fitzgerald looks at in his book “Brain Training for Runners.” According to Fitzgerald, physical activity generally, and training specifically, benefit an organism not only in the realm of physical adaptation but in strengthening the brain-body connection. He summarizes this principle this way:
“To train for running is to practice communication between your brain and your muscles.”
“When animals learn new motor skills, the areas of the motor cortex that map to the muscles involved increase in size.”
I’m not doing justice to Fitzgerald’s extensive analysis and interpretation of the research into the brain-train connection, which he lays out in his book. But notwithstanding my glib summary, I think it’s valid to say that he views physical activity and brain activity as co-requirements for what we call training. And with that perspective, it makes complete sense that physical activity would trigger bio-significant changes in the brain to facilitate learning — because that’s what training is! — the acquisition and refinement of new patterns for mind-body communication.
For some reason, this strikes me as funny.
If the above model is correct, physical activity stimulates brain activity, but the enhanced brain activity is “intended” for learning how to perform the physical activity more competently. Other results from enhanced brain activity — better test scores, improved ability to learn Icelandic, a keener appreciation of classical Greek drama — might just be incidental by-products of exercise, happy accidents of our biology.
Be that as it may, the more important insight might be that training is learning, and so we’d better make sure we are prepared to learn when we head out for our workouts and long runs.
Instead of “no brain, no pain,” the phrase ought to be updated to “no brain, no train.”