Want to Have Smarter Kids? Here’s Why Exercise May Be Key.

Father doing pushups with daughter sitting on his back
Father doing pushups with daughter sitting on his backsvetikd / Getty Images

If you like to excel in all facets of life and have every intention on breeding a super baby, get running: New research suggests men who exercise may have smarter kids, according to research published in Cell Reports. 

[Editor’s note: Before we delve into the study, know that the research involved mice—not men—so we can’t translate the results onto humans just yet. We can only make inferences until further research is done.]

What we do know is that working out has a host of weird side effects and benefits, especially in the brain (exercise can strengthen connections, boosting memory, learning, and thinking processes). We also know our environment can change the way our genes work, which can then be passed on to children (it’s called epigenetics). For example, a traumatic event or chronic stress can cause anxiety or depressive-like symptoms in offspring. However, researchers note some studies have found exposure to certain negative scenarios can also spur cellular changes that can protect offspring in a similar event.

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So, researchers set out to see whether exercise could change the way genes work—and if the brain benefits elicited by training could be passed along to children.

In the study, German researchers corralled a large group of genetically identical male mice that grew up entirely sedentary. The theory went that any differences among the animals would be a result of environment, since they all had the same baseline genetics.

Once the mice reached adulthood, half were added to cages with running wheels, toys, and games to stimulate their brains and bodies. The mice stayed in this adventure park-esque housing for 10 weeks, after which researchers took a gander inside some of their brains. The mice that played and exercised had stronger neuronal connections and performed better on cognitive tests than those that remained stationary.

Then researchers started mating the mice. The offspring of active males and inactive females had brains with strong connections, inferring greater intelligence. They learned a bit faster and remembered better than mice with sedentary parents.

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Researchers believe it all comes down to exercise’s impact on a male’s sperm.

Once mice started running, a couple types of microRNAs started to increase and forge stronger connections between brain cells; these tiny molecules ultimately impact genes. But this was the first time researchers found them in the brain and sperm.

These high levels of microRNA weren’t found in the running mice’s offspring. Levels were pretty even across the board for active and sedentary offspring. Likewise, when these pups grew up and had their own offspring, none had particularly strong neuronal connections in their brain. 

Bottom line: The benefits of running begin and end with exercise.

So, if you want to have a strong, smart lineage, you might want to start working out. And if you want to help your kids’ brains function at a higher level, you should encourage them to work out, too. The benefits of exercise are curbed once activity stalls.

The researchers are now looking into these microRNA molecules in the sperm and blood of men to see if the results are consistent in humans. In the meantime, keep running, training, and playing. It’ll only do you good.   

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