Phil Carville: Build muscles and brain cells |

Phil Carville: Build muscles and brain cells

Most of us already know that exercise promotes health benefits: stronger muscles and bones, weight loss and weight management, lower blood pressure, heart health, reduced risk for certain cancers, avoidance and/or control of diabetes… the list goes on.

Unfortunately, most adults do not exercise on a regular basis. If they did, they would live longer, be healthier and happier. But would they be smarter? Well, now there is good scientific evidence that they would.

Building brain cells

A new study was published this January in The Journal of Physiology which showed that certain forms of exercise may be much more effective than others in stimulating the creation of new brain cells. The study directly compared the neurological impacts of different types of exercise: running, weight training and high-intensity interval training.

For example, the statistically controlled study compared adult rats, (not mice, because rats are much more like humans … sometimes even smarter than humans) which ran on treadmills, doubled or even tripled the number of new neurons in the hippocampus (a key area in the brain for learning and memory) compared to sedentary rats. Scientists believe that exercise has similar beneficial impacts on the human hippocampus.

Comparative exercises

The researchers were quite ingenious. To test ‘rat weight training’, they tied tiny weights to their tails when they climbed walls. To test ‘high intensity training’ the animals were motivated to sprint at a very rapid and strenuous pace for three minutes, followed by two minutes of slow jogging, with the entire sequence repeated two more time for a total of 15 minutes.

The rats, that jogged on wheels, showed robust levels of neurogenesis. Their hippocampal tissue showed more than twice as many new neurons than the sedentary rats. The greater the distance covered, the greater the number of new brain cells.

The ‘weight-training rats’ were much stronger but had no discernible increase in neurogenesis. The sedentary rats were just that – sedentary and no smarter.

If Einstein were a jogger

The conclusion of the study was that (1) long and even slow cardio-exercise makes your smarter, (2) lifting weight makes you stronger, and (3) sitting on your duff makes you… well, you know and I don’t have to say it.

Which brings up the question. What if Albert Einstein lifted weights and jogged around the Princeton campus? What new ideas would have been discovered? As a young man, he had many great ideas. Later in life he devoted his time to thinking about a ‘unified theory’ of everything…but things didn’t pop up like when he was young. Had the rat study been published while he was an adult, he would have been seen around campus in his shorts and running shoes, instead of with his pipe and violin. We might have been on Mars already.

What it means for us

You don’t need to engage in high-intensity workouts. No 50-mile runs, no bicycle centuries, no need to envy the 20-something CrossFit kids. No, just plan to get in some long walks or slow jogs at Empire Mine State Park. Use treadmills in the gym, see a personal trainer and start up an individualized, weight-training and/or functional movement program. Exercise at least three times each week.

Mix it up. You are unique and you need to do what is best for you. Find that mix, then make it a habit.

You will feel better, be stronger, be happier, be better at golf and Bridge… and of course be much smarter than your grandkids.

Phil Carville is a longtime Nevada County resident and co-owner of the South Yuba Club – Strength & Wellness. He encourages comments and questions. He can be reached at

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