We are often admonished to exercise. It’s anti-inflammatory – we’re told. You’ll get less 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. Become 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 learn cognitively, too.
Language Learning Through Exercise
Chinese often want to learn English. But that is often really hard. A group of Chinese and Italian scientists tried to see if learning would improve by having people pedal. On an exercycle. 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 pedaling students did better. They learned more words. More interestingly, they understood more effectivelyhow to use the words semantically, figuring out whether their new words made sense in sentences. Their new linguistic abilities lasted longer, too.
So why did they do better?
Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Learning
Lots of folks wonder why moving your body makes you learn more. Some ascribe it to greater blood brain flow. That does not 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 neutrophic factor, or BDNF. That’s supposed to increase synaptic plasticity, making brain cells more capable to adaptation.
The truth is we have little idea of how exercise makes us learn better. And we’ve neglected something which should be obvious – there’s learning not just 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.
Differently. In number and size and shape. And most importantly, in how they engage with the cells around them. Including how they communicate.
Move and you change your muscles and joints. They may prove stronger. Work better.
But that’s not all. Moving changes pretty much all 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. They can accomodate bigger 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 heart and brain changes.
In a word, 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 wrote you can’t let school get in the way of your education. Old assumptions often block progress.
For every moment of your life is a teaching moment for the body. That’s what bodies do. What biology does.
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. 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 health care that fact?