In a recent interview in CrossFit Journal, Dr. John Ratey had this to say about the very best way to train both your mind and body:

If you want to construct the ideal exercise, it’s this: something with someone else (a partner or small tribe) outside for up to 20 or 30 minutes. It’s fun, people are competing with one another and helping one another. That is what we know from the evidence.

Let’s see…exercising with others, outside, helping one another. That sounds awesome. But is that CrossFit? While CrossFit workouts have you doing something alongside someone else, you’re almost never doing something with someone else. And while CrossFitters certainly compete with one another, the workouts are not designed to have people helping one another during the workout. What’s more, with one or two great exceptions, CrossFit gyms are indoors.

What Dr. Ratey is putting forward as the “ideal exercise” in the CrossFit Journal is not CrossFit. It’s queerfit.

For his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Dr. Ratey says that he read and digested 1000 scientific articles to figure out how physical activity can be used to boost learning and optimize your brain. To summarize his summary: exercise changes the physical structure of your brain. It makes you more smarter.

The parts of your brain that control motor function change, of course. Since the coordination required to do a beautiful burpee taps into the motor–sensory systems of the brain – your cerebellum, basal ganglia, etc. it’s not surprising that doing burpees pumps up your basal ganglia.

What is surprising, though, is that burpees also change the parts of your brain associated with higher cognitive function. The mighty hippocampus, for example, which has nothing to do with hippos and everything to do with memory and spatial navigation. (Ok, sure, both my memory and navigational skills are dreadful, but imagine how bad they would be if I didn’t do burpees.)

Various studies have shown that regular exercise increases dendritic connections, enhances the efficiency of the processing functions, and decreases oxidative damage in the brain. Some of these experiments, incidentally, involve measuring something called a pole-jump response, which involves rats, a rat-sized swimming pool, an electrified cage floor, a pole and some very mean scientists.

A different group of scientists, marginally less mean, assigned college students to either sit around on a couch or go hard on a stationary bike, and then take memory tests. The students assigned to the “bike to exhaustion” group no doubt cursed their sedentary counterparts throughout the experiment, but guess who did a whole lot better on the memory tests? What spiked with the intense exercise was brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein known to encourage the growth of new neurons.

Did you catch that? Intense exercise bumped up the level of BDNF, which probably resulted in the creation of new neurons. If you missed the total amazingness of that last sentence, do 50 squats and 40 pushups and then come back to continue reading.

Welcome back. About those new neurons. Used to be, we thought neurogenesis only happened early on in life, and by the time you’re out of high school, your brain has ossified into a garden gnome.  Now we know that while adult brains are largely finished with the neurogenesis thing, adults can continue to sprout new neurons. Once a new neuron pops up, there seems to be a two week window when that baby neuron acts like, well, a baby neuron. That is, with a lot of bendy plasticity and electricophysiological activity. Think Plastic Man, with sparkles. Things like BDNF play a key (though not yet understood) role.

So we now know that it’s stupid not to exercise. But what kind of exercise gives your not-young, semi-ossified brain the biggest boost? To answer that, rats and college students will continue being prodded and probed. We have some ideas, though, based on the evidence of experience.

Dr. Ratey seems to be on to something. If you want to supercharge your learning and mental function, do super challenging exercise, and do it in a group. Do it outside. Do it in ways that require you to compete sometimes and cooperate other times.

Do it with us tomorrow at 10:00 at our usual spot. It’s going to sunny and 75 degrees, and we’ll be out there growing us a whole headful of sparkling Plastic Man neurons.