Ready for yet another reason to pull yourself out of bed early to throw on gym clothes? Try this: Working out literally makes you smarter. “People who are physically fit show more mental acuity, concentration, and better memory,” says Cassandra Forsythe, Ph.D., R.D., an assistant professor of human performance at Central Connecticut State University.
For years researchers have tracked the connection between exercise and cognitive function, and study after study has shown that getting your heart and muscles pumping does the brain good when it comes to memory, focus, and planning. Exactly how the cognitive boost works is still fuzzy, but a brain-scan study last year from the University of Arizona compared runners to sedentary individuals and found that the brains of runners had stronger connections between regions. The frontal cortex, which is crucial to decision-making and planning, was especially well connected.
Meanwhile another recent study indicates that the brains of regular exercisers are more elastic, meaning they have more of the flexible tissue that's associated with improved memory. Think of elasticity like brain strength, and according to researchers from the University of Illinois, men and women with higher fitness levels have more elasticity in the hippocampus, the brain's learning center. (Animal studies have found that exercise promotes the development of new neurons in the hippocampus, as well.)
But here's where race training comes into play: Half-hearted attempts at exercise don't cut it. To truly bulk up your brain, you’ve got to challenge yourself, and do it often. Fitness needs to be a lifestyle—not a short vacation from laziness.
To make that happen, Forsythe recommends picking a goal that’ll keep you motivated. Forget wishy-washy objectives like ”get in shape." The most motivating goals are specific, measurable (meaning you can evaluate your progress with hard numbers or data), attainable (hold off on the marathon until you’ve managed a 5K), and have a target date. (If you’ve ever procrastinated on a work project, you know: There’s nothing like an impending deadline to make you to work harder.)
So instead of a vague intention to start hitting the gym when the mood strikes, consider something challenging, exciting, and maybe even a little frightening.
With a goal down on paper, your motivation to stick with a training program will skyrocket, and the extra gym time will benefit your brain. Less fat, more muscle, and more focus—sounds smart to us.
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