“If there were a drug that could do for human health everything that exercise can, it would likely be the most valuable pharmaceutical ever developed.” — Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky’s, Time Magazine
If you were to live around the 4th century BC and walked outside the northern city walls of Athens — right next to a lovely grove of olive trees dedicated to the goddess Athena — you would eventually reach a massive building with a sign on its entrance: The Academy. Not an academy, no, the academy, ran by none other than Plato himself.
Then if, overtaken by curiosity, you decided to step inside, you would be… confused. Why are there oiled-up naked men fighting each other in an arena? Why are others throwing disks? Why is there music in the background? What the hell is going on?
What is going on, my friend, is that Plato’s Academy was actually a Gymnasium. The word comes from the Greek gymnos, meaning ‘naked’, as Greeks performed most physical exercise whilst completely nude.*
Gymnasiums were originally built for the practice of wrestling, running, combat drills, etc. but they quickly became places of intellectual and philosophical discussion as well. To the Greeks, being in shape was considered necessary to achieving virtue, or excellence of character.† As the famous quote goes:
“In order for man to succeed in life, the gods provided him with two means: education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these means, man can attain perfection.” — Plato
Smart as a Jock
Let’s fast-forward almost 3.000 years to Naperville, Illinois. You’ll understand why in a second.
A few years ago, one of Naperville’s high schools ran an experiment: training students in fitness instead of sports. Their physical education class (PE) went from being taught once a week to every single morning, right before tough subjects like math and science. They also tailored the class so that each student would compete only against him/herself by using individual heart monitors instead of some objective standards.
A couple of years later, these simple changes turned the 19.000 students into the fittest and smartest in the nation. That’s right — smartest too.
Every four years since 1995, many students around the world take a test known as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). On average, the US has done poorly, ranking 18th in the world in science and 19th in math… and that’s considering schools only present their best and brightest to the test.
But what about Naperville? After having introduced the alternative fitness plan, almost 100% of their students took the TIMSS, and Naperville ranked 1st in the world in science and 6th in mathematics. During an interview, the PE teachers said that in their department, they created the brain cells, and it was up to the other teachers to fill them.
Self-assured? Perhaps. But they were onto something.
Big Brain Builders
Whenever you exercise, your body releases special proteins called neurotrophins. You can think of neurotrophins as construction workers for the brain: their job is to repair weak neurons and build new strong ones. Among their crew, one called Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is the most powerful of all. Since its discovery in the 90’s, BDNF has been dubbed “the master molecule of the learning process” and “the Miracle-Gro for the brain”. Simply put: it literally makes your brain grow.
Even though plenty of studies still need to be done to account for the many benefits of BDNF in humans, one thing seems very clear: nothing increases its production like a good workout does. Just 20 minutes of exercise increases serum BDNF levels by 32% compared to baseline levels in humans, and the higher the intensity of your workout (i.e. the more you push yourself) the more BDNF you release.
What really confused neuroscientists was that, test after test, they found out all the BDNF goodness did not go to brain sections related to movement, it went to the hippocampus — the brain’s memory center. Since this discovery, exercise has been recognized to quite possibly be the single best thing you can do for yourself.
In other words, almost three millennia later, people in lab coats proved what others in long robes already knew: that physical training is not merely an add-on, but a crucial component of your pursuit towards excellence.
If you want to train your brain, start by training your body. Intellectual and physical flourishing go hand in hand. Not only does disregarding fitness directly worsen the quality of your life, it also hinders your capacity to learn, think and create.
* The Greek martial art par excellence was named pankration. It consisted in brutal wrestling matches during which both competitors were completely naked and covered in olive oil. This made it extremely difficult to grapple with your opponent.
† Fun fact: Plato was supposedly jacked and did very well in the Isthmian Games (a pseudo-Olympic wrestling competition). In fact, his real name was Aristocles, but got surnamed Plato, meaning ‘the broad’, because of how big he was.
As always, thank you all for being here,
Santiago // Project Impero
PS: Long time no see — I know. Excuse the absence; I hope you’re well. If you have any comments or feedback, I would very much appreciate you sharing them with me, either down in the comments, through Instagram or on Twitter.
PPS: If this topic interests you and would like to read more, check out this article I wrote a while ago which discusses it more in-depth.