If popular tropes are to be believed accurate, humans are to be lumped clumsily into two categories: one group populated by slightly built intellectual types, reliant on their wit and wisdom when navigating the various trials of life; the other consisting of hard bodied athletic types whose survival is the want of their physical prowess and superior courage. The brain-brawn dichotomy, as it should be known, places these two very desirable human trait clusters in opposing positions, as if to say that, as a result of honing the one, one causes a deficit in the other. I don’t believe this. My contention, and the contention of our wise exemplars and cultural forebears the ancient Greeks, is that far from being mutually exclusive, these traits are the twin pillars that bear aloft the lintel of a meaningful, good, and healthy life.

Now we’ve all heard tell of the ancient practice of nude athletics and seen the towering figures of well-muscled ancient heroes rendered in stone, and we’re also well aware that wise men of similar antiquity busied themselves writing, inventing, and thinking things that now lay as the foundations of our sophisticated intellectual tradition. What you may not know, however, is how intimately connected these two pastimes were in the ancient world. For instance: In ancient Athens there were three great centres of learning. These were the Academy of Plato, from which we get our word academia and all of its variants; the Lyceum, the school of Plato’s prodigy Aristotle, and Cynosarges, a school just beyond the walls of the city, of which we know very little. These great institutions would have been alive with young Athenians trying their hand at philosophy, mathematics, poetry, and any other pursuit of the intellect. The interesting point to make, for this discussion at least, is that these places were, in fact, public gymnasia. The Gymnasium was a center of Athenian life, in which young men where taught how to exercise and how to think. There would be competitions, games, lectures and open forums for discussion and argument alike.

As a holder of a gym membership I can understand why this idea might be the cause of some incredulity. I find it hard to imagine having any conversation even bordering on debate on a gym floor. Engaging in discourse with an interlocutor can be challenging enough without having to shout over pumping club music and reassure a fellow gym goer that you will in fact be done with the bench in two set’s time. But for the ancient Greeks it was evident that there was a strong link between education, fitness, and overall health, and, as such, it was only natural to engage in the two types of activity at the same time. In Xenophon’s Memorabilia Socrates is reported to have said:

 

For in everything that men do the body is useful; and in all uses of the body it is of great importance to be in as high a state of physical efficiency as possible. Why, even in the process of thinking, in which the use of the body seems to be reduced to a minimum, it is matter of common knowledge that grave mistakes may often be traced to bad health. And because the body is in a bad condition, loss of memory, depression, discontent, and insanity often assail the mind so violently as to drive whatever knowledge it contains clean out of it.

Besides, it is a disgrace to grow old through sheer carelessness before seeing what manner of man you may become by developing your bodily strength and beauty to their highest limit. But you cannot see that, if you are careless; for it will not come of its own accord.1

 

What is striking about this passage is the claim that the relationship between mental and cognitive health, and physical health was ‘common knowledge’ in the time of Socrates. I would assert, without evidence admittedly, that the majority of modern people are not aware that this link exists. Its true that most will acknowledge that one can boost their confidence and self esteem by shedding a few pounds or developing a bit of muscle tone here and there but the mention of the effect of exercise on depression, and even memory is impressive coming from a source with such antiquity.

Thankfully, modern science has taken an interest in this area and has yielded insights which have proved to support the beliefs of our ancestors. Whilst that beach body that so many of us covet is desirable, and was as central to ancient aesthetics as it is to ours, there is a range of other benefits to exercise that the sedentary intellectual among us should take note of.

 

Memory and cognitive control

The hippocampus is a brain structure that plays a central role in spatial memory and the movement of information from short-term memory to long term memory. It has been observed that the size of this structure decreases over time, a process that leads to impaired memory function in old age. Just as Socrates observed, aerobic exercise has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus and actually reverse the ordinary age related decrease in size.2 This means that the preservation of healthy memory function into old age is directly correlated with regular aerobic exercise, and that a boost in memory function for younger individuals is possible! In addition to this, there is a protein called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which helps to increase the longevity of existing neurons, and promote the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, and in other regions related to learning and memory. The same study showed that this protein existed in higher concentration in the individuals that engaged in regular exercise.3

During the aging process the loss of brain tissue in other areas of the brain is also common. Areas such as the frontal, temporal, and parietal cortices are affected, leading to a decline in performance. Cognitive control, as it is known, refers to a variety of useful mental abilities such as working memory: the ability to handle and process information; inhibition: the ability to ignore and override certain stimuli in order to focus attention on a specific task; and cognitive flexibility: the ability to change your attention quickly from one task, or dimension of a task, to another. It is this set of cognitive abilities that suffers as we age, requiring us to engage in behaviors which will help to attenuate this inevitable decline. A study into the affects of exercise interventions in elderly individuals compared the outcome of two different exercise programmes on participants’ performance on tasks designed to test the various elements of cognitive control. Over a 6-month period one group engaged in an increased amount of aerobic exercise (walking), whilst a second group carried out a programme consisting of flexibility training (stretches). It was found that the aerobic exercise group showed a significant improvement on cognitive control tasks where the flexibility group showed none.4

A later study into the biological basis for these effects observed that the brain regions responsible for cognitive control were those that suffered the worst age related affects, decreasing in volume to a larger degree than other structures. Interestingly these same regions were observed to be the most responsive to exercise, allowing for an attenuation of age related degeneration.5

 

Mental health

In addition to memory, Socrates mentioned depression and ‘insanity’, when naming the negative consequences of a sedentary lifestyle. As I mentioned before, depression and mood disorders may be combated by developing our self-image and confidence a bit, but changing ones appearance is not the only reason to get into the gym. Exercise has been shown to have a variety of effects on mood in both healthy individuals and those with mental illnesses. Changes in the concentration of brain chemicals associated with mood, an enhanced ability to cope with stress, increases in self efficacy, and changes to social functioning are all benefits that have been observed in individuals who engage in regular, moderate physical activity.6

The effects of exercise on brain chemicals associated with mood has been likened to those of a psychotherapeutic intervention7. Concentration of mood related chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins increase as a result of physical activity. The result of this is an immediate boost to mood, reducing symptoms of stress, depression, and anxiety.8 No more that 30 minutes of moderate exercise is needed to achieve these results so there is no need to feel that you have to start running marathons!

The ability to deal with stress was studied to see if exercise could increase the emotional resilience of individuals who had recovered from clinical depression. Two groups of healthy individuals and two groups of individuals that had recovered from depression where tested. One group of healthy individuals and one group of recovered depressives were assigned a period of exercise, whilst the other groups did none. Later, all groups engaged in ‘sad mood induction’ exercises such as listening to sad music, reading emotionally charged sentences, or remembering sad events in their own life. The groups then filled out reports relating to their mood so that experimenters could determine what effect these ‘sad mood induction’ exercises had on their mood. The experimenters showed the only group whose mood was significantly impacted by the ‘sad mood induction’ exercises was the group of recovered depressives who had not engaged in exercise. This showed that the brief period of exercise was enough to equip one group of recovered depressives with the emotional resilience to resist the negative impact of the emotional stressors they were exposed to whilst the depressives that had done no exercise experienced a significant drop in mood.9

Self-efficacy refers to an individual’s beliefs about their ability to succeed at a task or goal and is a central idea in the psychology of behaviour change. Unsurprisingly, there is good evidence that these beliefs about the self actually affect the likelihood that one will achieve one’s goals. Unlike with medication, exercise has the benefit of including an element of willpower. Given that an individual has to put effort into completing an exercise session, rather than just taking a drug that mediates their mood, the payoff for the self-esteem is a welcome additional benefit.10 In addition to improved self-efficacy, many individuals show improved social functioning as a result of exercise. This is likely due to the combined influence of the above mentioned health benefits, working together to help people to be more confident and self assured, leading to the creation of social relationships which provide them with emotional support and a further source of happiness.

Although most of us are not in need of an exercise intervention on the grounds of mental illness, these benefits for one’s self esteem are cheap and readily available to everyone. Instead of viewing exercise as some kind of cure-all that one can take up when health begins to deteriorate, we should think of exercise as the ultimate preventative medicine. It is clear that all too often we wait until a problem arises, and attempt a fix when it does, rather than take steps to avoid, and buffer against those eventualities. This is why I decided to introduce this subject with reference to the ancient world and their approach to exercise as a cornerstone of healthy living. It is not that the ancient Greeks had an understanding of the body greater than, or even matching, that of our own. It’s not that they had a privileged view of human behaviour that allowed them to more readily observe the interplay between physical activity, intelligence, and mental health. Instead, it is that the ancient Greeks had a holistic view of the human as a dynamic system that seems important to me today. It is their willingness to acknowledge that we are a machine whose finely tuned processes improve and decline in unity that is worthy of applause and should be adopted by every one of us. All too often we can fall prey to complacence, allowing ourselves to forgo activities that would have been central to the lives of our ancestors. This is not just a matter of personal taste. No matter who you are and what you’re into, making sure exercise is a part of your daily life will help you to achieve your goals, achieve greater levels of happiness and a longer life.

 

Sources

  1. Xenophon, Memorabilia and Oeconomicus, translated by E.C. Marchant, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.
  2. Erickson, K.I. et al. Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 108, 3017–3022 (2011).
  3. (ibid)
  4. Kramer AF, Hahn S, Cohen NJ, Banich MT, McAuley E, Harrison CR, Chason J, Vakil E, Bardell L, Boileau RA, Colcombe A, Nature. 1999 Jul 29; 400(6743):418-9.
  5. Colcombe SJ, Erickson KI, Raz N, Webb AG, Cohen NJ, McAuley E, Kramer AF, J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2003 Feb; 58(2):176-80.
  6. Guszkowska M.. Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood [in Polish] Psychiatr Pol. 2004;38:611–620.
  7. Richardson CR, Faulkner G, and McDevitt J. et al. Integrating physical activity into mental health services for persons with serious mental illness. Psychiatr Serv. 2005 56:324–331.
  8. Thornen P, Floras JS, Hoffman P, Seals DR. Endorphins and exercise: physiological mechanisms and clinical implications. Med Sci Sports Exerc.1990;22:417–428.
  9. Mata J, Hogan CL, Joorman J, Waugh CE, Gotlib IH. Acute exercise attenuates negative affect following repeated sad mood inductions in persons who have recovered from depression. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 2013;122:45–50.
  10.  Richardson CR, Faulkner G, and McDevitt J. et al. Integrating physical activity into mental health services for persons with serious mental illness. Psychiatr Serv. 2005 56:324–331.
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