Well Being

Exercise Your Brain: Movement, Not Meat, Made Humans Smarter (And Still Does)

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cave painting

The idea that carnivorous cooking took us from cavemen to CEOs has been floating around for a while. But recent research suggests that it may be exercisenot meat eating — that helped humans boost their brainpower. In a paper that will be published in January, anthropologist David A. Raichlen says physical activity was key in the development of bigger brains.

Bigger brains, of course, are linked to increased intelligence. The human brain is about three times larger than makes sense when compared to other mammals.

Evolutionary scientists have cited social interaction and meat-heavy diets as key reasons why human brains got bigger and human beings got smarter. But according to the New York Times, an “emerging scientific view of human evolution” holds that prehistoric brains were “shaped and sharpened” by movement, as well. In fact, physical activity and endurance may have been even more influential than socializing or diet on human brain development.

To reach that conclusion, anthropologists began by looking at existing data about brain size and endurance capacity in a variety of mammals, including dogs, guinea pigs, foxes, mice, wolves, rats, civet cats, antelope, mongeese, goats, sheep and elands. They found a notable pattern. Species like dogs and rats that had a high innate endurance capacity, which presumably had evolved over millenniums, also had large brain volumes relative to their body size.

Researchers also genetically engineered some super-rodents, bred to excel at running.

… after multiple generations, these animals began to develop innately high levels of substances that promote tissue growth and health, including a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. These substances are important for endurance performance. They also are known to drive brain growth.

Like our cave-dwelling ancestors, we still need regular exercise and movement for our brains to function optimally. John D. Polk, an anthropology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and co-author of the new paper, says that “regular exercise, even walking,” can increase intelligence and cognitive power “beginning in childhood and continuing into old age.”