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Back in the ’90s, when the Naperville (Ill.) School District instituted a daily fitness program for its students, test scores shot up. Several years later, when eighth-graders took an international math and science standards test, they scored first in the world in science, beating out students from top-ranked Japan, Korea and Singapore.

Although brain experts still can’t entirely explain this brain-boosting phenomenon, we now have at least a cursory understanding of why physical activity has such a profound effect on mental performance. For one thing, exercise promotes a process called neurogenesis in which stem cells in the brain create new neurons that help keep our brains lithe. Meanwhile, exercise also suppresses the activity of a protein called bone-morphogenetic protein, or BMP, which causes brain stem cells to become inactive and puts the brakes on neurogenesis. Physical activity also triggers increases in the level of a pro-neurogenesis protein in the brain called, aptly, Noggin. The result is a younger, smarter brain. So use your Noggin: Get off the couch and start moving your body!

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