Exercise Literally makes your brain cells more powerful by increasing their number of mitochondria
In my article about Exercise Boosts Your Brainpower: Vascularization I told you that exercise increases the density of blood vessels in your brain, which helps get more oxygen and nutrients to your brain cells and keeps them alive longer, and in my article about Exercise Boosts Your Brainpower: Neurogenesis I told you that exercise increases the number of newly-formed neurons in your brain by as much as 200%. These two findings are obviously reason enough to start exercising if you want to maximize your brainpower, BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! (Yes, this is a brainpower infomercial) Exercise also makes your existing brain cells more powerful! How does it do this you ask? By increasing the number of mitochondria in them.
Mitochondria are the locomotives of the cell, they generate all the power the cell needs to transport things, break down molecules, synthesize new molecules, and even send signals from one cell to another. In the picture to the right the mitochondria are the funny-looking, red, oval-shaped guys labeled number 9. They are responsible for turning the food you eat into ATP, the body’s energy molecule, and the more mitochondria there are in a cell, the more energy the cell has. Everything you do requires ATP, and I mean everything. Just name something your body does, and I will yell “Your body needs ATP to do it!” Go ahead, try it. Name anything.
It has been show in studies dating as far back as 1967 that exercise increases the number of mitochondria in your muscle cells1. These increases in mitochondria allow a person to exercise longer before fatigue sets in. Basically, the more mitochondria your muscle cells have the harder they can work and not run out of energy. This is in part why professional athletes have so much more endurance than the average person. A professional football player can sprint at full speed time after time during the game without losing a beat, while a normal person could sprint for maybe 15 seconds a few times before they would wear out and slow way down. A professional cyclist in the Tour de France can bike a hundred mile stage up the side of a mountain, and then do it again for 20 more days, some without even doping! An Ironman athlete can swim 2.4 miles, then bike 112 miles, and then run 26.2 miles without taking a break. But all of this endurance requires training and time build up as their body’s muscle cells make more and more mitochondria to be able to fuel their body as they push themselves to the limit. Your body can make your cells do some pretty incredible things when pushed to the limit.
So what does all this mitochondria talk and improved athletic endurance have to do with brainpower? Miraculously, J. Mark Davis and his research group at the University of South Carolina showed that the number of mitochondria also increases in your brain cells if you exercise2 (they did this experiment with mice, of course, since they had to dissect the brains…). This is a tremendous finding because it implies that exercise will improve your brain’s endurance, allowing you to focus longer and study harder without tiring. Instead of being able to focus for only 20 minutes at a time until your brain gets tired, you might be able to last 30 minutes or more without having to take a break, and you can accomplish this by just exercising.
I have to note that the authors of this study, being good scientists, didn’t want to make grandiose claims about the increase in mitochondria leading to improved studying endurance because they didn’t test this in the experiment itself, although I would be very interested to watch them test how long mice can study for! They solely looked to see if exercise boosted mitochondrial activity expression in brain cells. Which it did. And not by just a little bit. The specific biological markers they used to look for increases in mitochondrial activity in many different regions of the brain (for those of you scientists: mRNA expression, and mitochondrial protein and mtDNA expression) showed boosts of anywhere from 50-500%! But if the cells in all the different regions of the brain they tested had this much of an increase in mitochondrial activity there is no doubt in my mind that it leads to improved endurance while learning and studying. How can it not?
It would be like going to the store to buy a more powerful microwave so you can heat up your ramen noodles faster. I hated it when it took four minutes for the dorm’s microwave to heat up my noodles, so I went out and bought one of my own and then it only took a minute and thirty seconds. Well, turns out that even though I bought the more powerful microwave to primarily heat up my soup faster, it also heated up everything else faster. More power means more power, and even if your brain cells make more mitochondria because you exercise, it doesn’t mean your added mitochondria will only benefit you while exercising – it will literally boost your brain’s power and be available to you regardless of whether you’re socializing, snorkeling or studying.
In my own personal experience I have noticed that during periods when I exercise consistently my brain does seem to work better by helping me think more clearly and improving the length of time I can focus. And when I haven’t exercised in a while – like over the holidays, oops – my brain tends to slow down a bit. I haven’t met a person yet who hasn’t felt the same, and I have certainly never met someone who said “Gosh Joe, when I exercise I feel so slow and lazy, and my brain just doesn’t seem to work right anymore!”
So here’s the take-home message:
Exercising increases the number of mitochondria not only in your muscle cells, but also in your brain cells. This means your brain cells can produce more energy and work for longer periods of time without fatiguing. This literally means that exercise boosts your brainpower. This will improve how long you can focus and study for without getting tired or having to take a break.
- Holloszy JO. Biochemical adaptations in muscle: effects of exercise on mitochondrial oxygen uptake and respiratory enzyme activity in skeletal muscle. Journal of Biological Chemistry. 242: 2278–2282. 1967.
- Steiner JL, Murphy EA. McClellan JL. Carmichael MD. Davis JM. Exercise training increases mitochondrial biogenesis in the brain. Journal of Applied Physiology. 111: 1066-1071. 2011.