The Protein That Makes Athletes Stronger and Smarter
Scientists have discovered that same protein responsible for learning and memory retention also fuels endurance and sports performance
You may know Shannon Miller as America's most decorated gymnast (male or female!), but would you recognize her in the courtroom, standing behind the prosecutor's desk? No, this isn't the plot line for the latest Law and Order (although we would totally watch that). After showcasing her brawn in the 1996 Olympics, smart-girl Miller showed off her brains, getting her BA in Marketing and Entrepreneurship and then going on to get her law degree. Now, she 's the president of her own company. But while her success story is impressive, it's not surprising, according to a new study from the Salk Institute that found that athletes are smarter than the average person.
It's officially time to retire the dumb jock stereotype.
Miller is just one of many athletes who are just as smart off the field as they are on it, say the researchers, because of a single protein called estrogen-related receptor gamma (ERRγ). ERRγ, called the "master metabolic switch" due to its power over how energy is allocated, has long been known to improve athletic performance-but this study found that it's also linked to memory and learning.
"[ERRy] is all about getting energy where it's needed to 'the power plants' in the body," said Ronald Evans, director of Salk's Gene Expression Laboratory and senior author of the new paper, in a press release. "The heart and muscles need a surge of energy to carry out exercise and neurons need a surge of energy to form new memories." (Learn more 5 Tricks to Improve Memory Immediately.)
A 2011 study done on mice found that ERRy increases blood supply, doubling running capacity, and turns on a number of muscle genes that convert fat to energy. This study found that ERRy does almost the same thing for your brain, except it burns sugar instead of fat.
This new study backs up years of research that shows how our muscles and brain work together to enhance each other. Previous studies have shown that athletes are more likely to graduate and have higher grades, can focus and concentrate better, learn faster, and even have more gray matter than their sedentary peers.
But before you get discouraged that you're not a soccer prodigy, scientists say this isn't just a matter of smarter people becoming athletes, but rather that being athletic actually makes you smarter, according to a 2013 study published in Scientific Reports. Even if you never make it to elite levels, simply playing a sport or exercising causes a chain of positive changes in your brain that last long after your sweat dries. (Try boosting brain power with The Best Ways to Pump Up Your Mental Muscles.)
And it doesn't have to be an Olympic-level sweat fest, either. A 2014 Harvard study found that people who walked regularly showed increased brain size and activity in just six months. The study participants took a brisk walk for one hour, twice a week or 120 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week. To get the best brain boost, though, the researchers recommend half an hour of moderate physical activity most days of the week, or about 150 minutes a week.