The idea that all weight lifters are meat heads, is a lie – at least according to a new study that linked exercise with bulked up brain power.
The study, conducted by the Laboratory of Neuroscience at the National Institute on Aging, was seeking to examine whether changes in muscles induced by exercise may affect and/or improve the brain’s ability to think. And furthermore, whether this reaction starts in the muscles rather than the brain. What they found caused them to think this hypothesis may be correct.
The premise of the study, which was published in the journal Learning and Memory, was that muscles are greatly affected by exercise, as they respond by producing a variety of substances that grow muscles stronger and bigger. But lead scientist Henriette van Praag – lead investigator at the National Institute on Aging – thinks some of these compounds might be entering the bloodstream and making their way to the brain.
To test their hypothesis, researchers examined a well-controlled group of un-exercised lab rats. But instead of having them do traditional exercises such as working out on a treadmill, they gave them a mixture of two well-studied stimulant drugs – one of which is called Aicar – that have been found to have similar effects on the body as exercise.
Rather than traditional exercise, researchers saw the drugs as a more controlled, reliable variable since exercise is considered ‘a complicated physiological stimulus, making it difficult to isolate which compounds are involved and what their effects might be.’ Aicar, for example, was selected because it’s been found to enable untrained mice to run 44 percent farther during a treadmill test than untrained animals who weren’t given the drug.
Researchers were specifically trying to determine whether or not changes in the muscles also sparked changes in the brain. And what they found out was that muscles did, in fact, affect the mind.
After one week of administering the drugs to the mice, researchers noticed significant improvements in memory and learning, especially with the use of Aicar. They also concluded that the drugged animals’ brains contained a much higher number of neurons in areas of the brain central to memory and learning, than animals not given the drugs.
Praag says the study’s message is that ‘improvements in cognition that follow exercise seem to involve changes throughout the body and not just in the brain.’ She also says we should primarily do aerobic exercise if it’s going to substantially affect our brains, since increased blood flow is key. This typically occurs during endurance training as opposed to weight lifting.
Whether or not we can hold these findings true for humans as well, Praag says that ‘the scientific evidence in this area is strong and growing, and that exercise is very good for the muscles – and the brain.’ So with that in mind, hit the gym for a potentially trimmer waist and a higher IQ.