Walking This Many Steps a Day Could Make You Smarter

July 12, 2019 by Hristina Byrnes

We all know that exercise is good for us, both physically and psychologically, but many of us complain that we simply don’t have time to devote a couple of hours a day to staying (or getting) in shape. That’s probably true even in the cities getting the most exercise.

Now, new research suggests that even short bursts of physical activity can, at the least, potentially increase your brain power.

Neuroscientists from the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) and the Portland VA Health Care System have found that exercising for relatively brief periods — the equivalent of a game of pickup basketball or 4,000 steps of walking weekly — can activate a gene in the brain that promotes the growth of dendritic spines. This is where synapses form in the hippocampus, the portion of the brain associated with memory and learning.

This is great news for people with limited time. After all, exercise is known for helping to alleviate stress — and stress and several other things can lead to brain health problems and memory loss.

Most research on the benefits of exercise concentrate on the effects of sustained activity on the heart and muscles, paying little attention to the brain’s response. The Oregon study, published in the journal eLife, concentrates on a gene called Mtss1L, whose functions had been largely ignored in previous studies. Discovering its effects on brain power, the study’s co-lead author Christina Chatzi, Ph.D., told the OHSU news site, “was the most exciting thing.”

The report’s co-senior author Gary Westbrook, M.D., added “Exercise is cheap, and you don’t necessarily need a fancy gym membership or have to run 10 miles a day.”