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Matthew J. Edlund M.D.

Exercise: A Great Teacher

Is exercise itself learning?

chevanon photography at pexels
Source: chevanon photography at pexels

We are often admonished to exercise. It’s anti-inflammatory—we're told. You’ll have fewer heart attacks and strokes. Fewer tumors. Clearly less Alzheimer’s disease. And you might lose weight and look better.

But what is it we do during exercise? We learn. We grow more biologically intelligent.

For if learning is the acquisition of knowledge and skills, exercise provides it in spades: to the heart; to the immune system; to the brain.

Which is why it also helps us learn cognitively, too.

Language Learning Through Exercise

Many Chinese people want to learn English, but this is often a challenging endeavor. A group of Chinese and Italian scientists tried to see if learning would improve by having people pedal on an exercycle both before and during class.

The pedaling was not arduous. It did not include the high-intensity interval training (HIIT) which is now thought to increase brain cell growth. One group of students pedaled for twenty minutes before class, and 15 minutes during the beginning of it. The other group did what students do everywhere, sat around in chairs while someone lectured them.

The results? The pedaling students performed better—they learned more words. More interestingly, they understood more effectively how to use the words semantically, figuring out whether the new words made sense in the context of different sentences. Their new linguistic abilities lasted longer, too.

But why did they do better?

Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Learning

Some people think moving your body makes you learn more because it increases blood flow to the brain. That does happen, but not by a whole lot. Some research shows moving muscles makes them produce proteins like cathepsins. Somehow these affect the brain and may produce more brain cell growth. Exercise does make new cells in memory areas. Do more, grow more memory storage. Exercise also increases brain derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF. That increases synaptic plasticity, making brain cells more capable of adaptation.

The truth is we have little idea of how exercise makes us learn better. And we’ve neglected something which should be obvious—learning doesn't just happen in the brain, but all over the body.

Exercise uses up muscle tissue, as well as ligaments and joints. That creates inflammation, which exercise is “supposed” to prevent. Yet following this inflammation, which clears out dead parts and identifies repairable ones, muscle cells and joint cells and connective tissue cells grow anew.

They grow in different numbers, sizes, and shapes. And, most importantly, in how they engage and communicate with the cells around them.

Move and you change your muscles and joints. They may prove stronger. Work better.

But that’s not all. Moving changes pretty much all of your cells.

Consider your heart. Yes, exercise may grow more “efficient” heart cell muscles. But it also changes their electrical controllers. Endurance athletes, for example, are famous for having slower heart rates.

And the coronary arteries are changed, as are arteries everywhere. So are the veins. They may become more elastic and begin to be able to accommodate larger and more varied blood flows.

So muscles change with exercise. Ligaments change. Arterial lining cells change. Connections between the heart and all other tissues change. Communication between the heart and brain changes.

In a sentence, learning is taking place.

With physical activity, such learning is occurring everywhere. Immune cell function changes quickly through exercise.

Exercise is making us learn everywhere. Most of this learning is not conscious. It’s just critical to health.

The Body as Information System

Mark Twain once wrote you can’t let school get in the way of your education. The idea is that old assumptions often block progress.

Every moment of your life is a teaching moment for the body. That’s what bodies do.

It learns. Living things are always generating new information. That helps them survive.

Exercise is one notable example of how we learn non-cognitively and non-consciously. Yet pretty much everything we do teaches us something—good or bad.

Sitting down (remember the phrase, “sitting is the new smoking”?). Standing up. Eating knockwurst. Kissing babies. Even reading the news.

The environment around us—trees, buildings, bacteria, taxi drivers, viruses, cell phones, nitrous oxide, needy relatives, antidepressants in our drinking water—is always changing. To survive, we change.

We learn. We adapt and figure out new ways to do things.

And the vast majority of this learning never comes into our consciousness.

So, a simple idea can go a long way. Think of your body as an information system. It constantly learns. If it adapts well to the constantly changing environment, we last longer and feel better.

Ultimately, exercise, as learning teaches us, is that we are learning all the time we're alive. To a fair extent our health—our physical, mental, social and spiritual well-being—is learned.

Now, can we teach healthcare that fact?


About the Author

Matthew Edlund, M.D., researches rest, sleep, performance, and public health. He is the author of Healthy Without Health Insurance and The Power of Rest.