Television has long been called the "idiot box," but here is more evidence that being a couch potato harms the brain as well as the body.  Unfortunately, in this case reading is just as bad as watching TV.

The Swedish experiment was actually about depression.  Previous studies have shown that the hippocamus region of the human brain shrinks in depressed people.  In this study, exercise was shown to have a significant anti-depressant effect in rats, and promoted dramatic neuron growth in the hippocampus.  (If you, like me, wonder how on earth they can tell if a rat is depressed, read the article.)

As usual, the study raises more questions.  How does this apply to humans?  Is the effect noticable in both young and old?  Is it physical activity, per se, that makes the difference, or are some types of exercise more valuable than others?

Most intriguing of all:  The study was about depression, but the hippocampus is also involved in learning and memory.  What effect, then, does exercise (or lack thereof) have on our general intellectual abilities?  Since the days when most people earned their daily bread through physical labor, have our sedentary lives taken away a significant portion of the intellectual growth gained by increased access to books and schooling?

When I mentioned this article to Porter, his first question was, if this is so, why the generalization of the "dumb jock"?  Perhaps the kind of exercise really does matter.  Maybe running, being a natural human motion, builds brain cells better than say, tennis.  Maybe the average intellectual ability among athletes is brought down significantly by those sports that involve massive blows to the head.

The sedentary lives of most American children are harming their brains as well as their bodies.  Blame television, video games, long hours in school/day care, urban apartment and suburban homes with small lots, or crime rates and parental fears that keep children close to home—any and all of the above.  Our kids need to get moving!  Until there is more data, I would favor the more natural forms of movement such as crawling and creeping for babies, and walking and running for older kids, and swimming for everyone (except that I worry about the high chlorine level in public pools), and only add organized sports on top of a good program of the above.  But that's a personal preference; I imagine that for most children any exercise will help.

Moreover, we adults need to get moving, too!  If we're worried about our children's intellectual development, they have equal right to worry out their parents' intellectual decline.  If exercise now will help keep our minds sharp as we age, we owe it to our kids as well as ourselves to get off the couch (or out of the computer chair).

I'm extrapolating here, of course.  This particular study was just about depression.  But I'm all for non-pharmaceutical solutions, and in this case running was as effective as anti-depressant medication.  We'll be happier, and we might become smarter.  What are we waiting for?
Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, July 5, 2007 at 8:39 am | Edit
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As a teacher, I was constantly hearing about research linking exercise to mental performance. I never looked into it deeply, so I can't point you to the studies, but the general gist is always exercise=good. Like students scoring higher on standardized tests if they walked around and stretched between tests. And yes, a link to retention (stands to reason, if it increases circulation to the brain).

With the "dumb jocks," I bet it has more to do simply with time and priorities. If someone is going to be seriously devoted to athletics, they're not going to be reading John Donne under the covers until midnight, like a certain teenager who will remain nameless. (And who has never been much of a jock.) I've certainly seen some "dumb musicians" with the same phenomenon. A lot of people violently resented Eastman's requirement of a humanity elective per semester. "I'm going to be a musician; I don't need to know how many circles Milton's hell [sic] had, I just need to be able to play octaves scales better than anyone else." (And yes, I really mean "ignorant," not "dumb"—except wait, I kind of do. Yes, primarily they simply missed out on trivia and the ability to not be embarrassed when their liberal-arts relatives ask them about color in Matisse or Gatsby. But I do believe we study these things not just to save face; they actually do make us wider and deeper and wiser people. My moral attitude is humbler for thinking deeply on Measure for Measure. My attitude toward personal gain is different for seeing where it got Alexander, Timurlane, and Caesar. My appreciation for the beauty of symmetry and color in creation is heightened by taking some basic art appreciation. And no, I don't think you can be a truly complete musician without appreciating the degree to which the stream of human life before and around the music you're making affects it.

Ahem—back to topic—yes, exercise good.

Posted by Andy Bonner on Thursday, July 05, 2007 at 10:40 am

More than a month old, but I only read Newsweek in the doctor's waiting room:

Posted by dstb on Wednesday, June 11, 2008 at 11:11 am
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