After finishing his first semester at SMU last year, Syed Rizvi had finally learned how to prioritize his day: class, gym, library.
“After I workout it helps me focus better,” said Rizvi, “I’ll have just enough energy to study and not distract myself.”
Rizvi may be on to something.
It is common knowledge that running miles on the treadmill can put a person on the path to a trim body, but adding more physical fitness and cardio to one’s daily routine may be the key to making an individual smarter and able to boost productivity.
Researchers have found that specific molecules released during endurance exercise, like hormones and endorphins, improve cognition. Exercise has also been found to benefit outcomes in neurological diseases like depression, epilepsy, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
“All the research that has been done for years show that exercise and resistance training has positively affected cognitive thinking and learning,” said Kevin Cox, a personal trainer at SMU.
Wellness experts recommend that you get at least 150 minutes of exercise a week, the minimum that has been shown to have a positive effect on the body physically, mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually.
According to Cox, studies show that exercise can make a difference in full grade changes, from taking a test and getting a C to taking a test and getting a B.
“When someone regularly participates in exercise, it’s just as simple as having more blood flow to the brain, bringing all the nutrients that it needs,” said Kevin Kikugawa, assistant athletic trainer at SMU. “It just makes one more aware, alert and overall more healthier.”
Michael Andrews, law student at SMU, works out about six days a week. He has been going to the gym five or six days a week since the age of 12.
“For me, working out is a stress reliever,” said Andrews. “When I get to work out, it is my alone time, if I need a break from studying for a long time, getting to work out really helps me to reset.”
Exercise signals the release of several key hormones, including serotonin, a mood booster; dopamine, which affects learning and attention; and norepinephrine, which influences perception, motivation, attention and arousal.
Recent studies show that Parkinson’s patients that engage in physical activity like boxing classes, tai chi and yoga, benefit from those exercises. Parkinson’s is marked by slow and rigid movements. The patients’ movements, after these classes, tend to be more fluid.
“Helping patients who have Parkinson’s is just one of the few examples of how beneficial physical activity is,” said Ellie Odenheimer, lecturer in Applied Physiology and Wellness at SMU.
According to Odenheimer, there have also been studies of children who need breaks of movement throughout their day so that their bodies and their brains can switch gears in order to better understand learning material.
“For example, when you lift a dumbbell, your brain has to tell you to do it through the peripheral nervous system and then you lift it,” said Emily Field, Personal Training Supervisor at SMU.
Rizvi recalls having conversations with the Mr. SMU 2013, Ali Asker, about working out before Rizvi started his own routine.
“Ali did really well in school and now he is working for an energy company in Kuwait,” said Rizvi. “He told me working out helped him keep his mind fresh and prioritize.”
Matthew Brown, olympic lifter and personal trainer at SMU, says there is a lot of research that has been done connecting mental health, wellness and physical fitness. The endorphins and the hormones that are released when you workout can give you a runner’s high, for instance.
“You are more likely to stay healthy and not get sick as much,” said Brown. “You will also be able to sleep better during the night and not get as tired during the day, and that all ties back to mental wellness as well.”
Physical activity not only improves cognitive thinking in a person, but it may also help someone become more spiritual and connect to their minds on a different level.
While conducting research, Odenheimer talked to a teacher who taught yoga through a Christian perspective. The teacher talked about kinesthetic worship, when the body is physically in different positions.
“For example, in the Muslim tradition, they face Mecca and bow down on a prayer rug and go through different physical motions as a form of prayer,” said Odenheimer. “Another example is in different Christian denominations, like Catholicism. People kneel to pray at different times during their services.”
For some people, especially those who are kinesthetic learners, they can get to a spiritual place through physical activity.
“Tons of studies have been done, especially on children, where the ones who were physically active made better grades,” said Field. “But the question is, is the activity making them smarter or are smarter kids choosing to workout more… there is always a correlation between the two, but which one comes first?”