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Learning Hack: How to GROW your brain

Read more? Learn a language? Take brain-growing supplements? Eat more vegetables? How on earth do you grow your brain?

Well in fact it’s not so much what you do to your brain directly, and more about what you do with your body. The brain, after all, is a part of your body, and it turns out that exercise is an important means of improving brain functionality and physically increasing the size of your brain by growing new cells. As sedentary behaviour is on the rise, it’s important we know that extended periods of physical stillness actually shrink our brains, and that the whole purpose of a brain in the first place is directly linked to the need to move. This seems like a crazy paradox because the whole reason we’re sitting for so long is because we’re using our brains to be productive, yet in order to improve productivity, focus and actual brain size, we need to be moving.

Show me the science!

Neuroscientist Dr Wendy Suzuki gave a compelling Ted Talk on the brain-changing benefits of exercise in which she argued that “exercise is the most transformative thing you can do for your brain,” as it helps focus and maintain attention, improves memory, mood and energy. Exercise has these benefits because it actually changes the brain’s anatomy, physiology and function by producing new cells in the hippocampus. This increases the volume of the brain and improves long term memory while also improving attention function in the prefrontal cortex. A bigger and stronger hippocampus and prefrontal cortex also means that your brain is more protected against cognitive decline in ageing and neuro degenerative disease.

John Ratey, associative clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School wrote a book called Spark in which he exposes the transformative effects of exercise on the brain. In the book he states that the main purpose of the brain from an evolutionary perspective is in fact to perform complex motor movements – so the more we move, the more our brain is needed and thus grows stronger. The less we move, the less our brain is needed and thus shrinks and grows weaker.

Ratey mentions a 2008 study that showed people learning vocabulary words 20% faster after exercise compared to learning without exercise. This was thanks to a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Don’t be scared by the name- simply think of it like this: brain fertiliser. BDNF nourishes brain cells, just like fertiliser does for a plant; helping them to grow and improve functionary of neural pathways. A later study in 2013 revealed that 20-40 minutes of exercise increases BDNF in the blood by 32%.

How to hack it

Ok, ok so how exactly should you be moving to grow your brain? Both Dr Suzuki and Dr Ratey (and all across the field of neuroscience) it is understood that the benefit comes from exercise which increases your heat rate by up to 80%. 20-40 minutes in the morning of heart-pumping movement is the sweet spot, especially because the chemical benefits from the exercise that improve mood and focus last for 2-4 hours immediately after your workout. Add an extra 5 minutes of movement every few hours to keep these benefits sustained throughout the day. To get maximum benefits, include complex motor movement in the work out like tennis or dancing.

So are you ready to grow your brain? Well hurry up and get moving! And for more learning and health hacks check out the bestselling Mental Fitness and Wellbeing course from 42 Courses in our library, and follow us on Instagram @we_grow_sa. Happy brain growing!

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