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Can Exercise Make Us Smarter?

Hit the books, or hit the ground running? Exercise may also boost brainpower — no number two pencils required.
Can Exercise Make Us Smarter?
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These days, intelligence isn’t just a product of late-night study sessions or listening to Rosetta Stone on repeat. It turns out there’s also a convincing link between exercise and cognitive function, which could motivate people to hit the gym to bulk up the body and the brain.

Burpees for Brain Power? — Why It Matters

There’s no shortage of research (of mice and men) that uncovers a connection between exercise and the brain [1] [2] [3]. One study discovered mice that ran every night for six-weeks doubled the size of their hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with memory and learning [4]. (It’s unclear how long these results lasted, though.) A small experiment with 30-somethings also found a link between cardio workouts and hippocampus growth after three months of regular aerobic exercise [5].

In two experiments with college students, acute and high-impact cardio exercise was linked to increased vocabulary learning and reaction time [6] [7]. (No flash cards necessary!) Other studies show adults’ brain-processing speed and memory improved after half an hour of moderate exercise [8] [9]. And don’t just hit the roads: Research also suggests strength training not only builds muscle — it can boost cognitive functioning, too [10].

So how exactly does hitting the gym translate to a better brain? While the connection between burpees and the brain is not fully understood, studies have found that exercise (both aerobic and anaerobic) could jump-start neurogenesis, aka BDNF — which is linked to learning and is responsible for populating the brain with neurons [11] [12] [13] [14]. Some scientists point to an evolutionary explanation: Natural selection favored fitter humans over less athletic people, and the fittest of the bunch were also the ones that produced the most BDNF, aka the smartest [15].

Genius Gym Rat — The Answer/Debate

Before we blow off the books for the bike, we should hit the gym with a side of smart skepticism. There is still a lot of grey matter (pun intended!) when it comes to intelligence and its link to exercise. While research does show a clear connection between hitting the gym and brain function, it’s unclear how much time at the gym is needed to boost brainpower, and whether the brainy effects of exercise are immediate or can have long-term results.

So while hitting the gym may not immediately make us smarter, it could boost productivity to help people get more work done. Exercise can also boost energy levels and focus, which theoretically could motivate us to hit the books. The bottom line? A little exercise is never a bad thing, and could not only make you stronger, but smarter too.

This article has been read and approved by Greatist Experts Eugene Babenko and Phillip Page.

Do you think hitting the gym can make you smarter? Share your thoughts in the comments below or tweet the author at @lschwech.

Photo: Bigstock

Works Cited +

  1. Exercise and the brain: something to chew on. Praag, H. Trends in Neurosciences, 2009 May; 32(5): 283-290.
  2. Wheel running attenuates microglia proliferation and increases expression of a proneurogenic phenotype in the hippocampus of aged mice. Kohman, R.A., DeYoung, E.K., Bhattacharya, T.K., et al Department of Psychology, University of Illinois, Beckman Institute, Urbana, IL. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 2012 Jul;26(5):803-10. Epub 2011 Oct 25.
  3. Exercise and the brain: insight in new therapeutic modalities. Meeusen, R. Dept. Human Physiology & Sportsmedicine Vrije Universiteit Brussel-Belgium. Annals of Transplantation, 2005;10(4):49-51.
  4. Prolonged voluntary wheel-running stimulates neural precursors in the hippocampus and forebrain of adult CD1 mice. Bednarczyk, M.R., Aumont, A., Decary, S., et al. Department of Pathology and Cell Biology, Université de Montréal, Montréal, Québec, Canada. Hippocampus, 2009 Oct;19(10):913-27.
  5. An in vivo correlate of exercise-induced neurogenesis in the adult dentate gyrus. Pereira, A.C., Huddleston, D.E., Brickman, A.M., et al. The Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer's Disease and the Aging Brain, Department of Neurology, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, NY. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2007 March 27; 104(13): 5638–5643.
  6. High impact running improves learning. Winter, B., Breitenstein, C., Mooren, F.C., et al. Department of Neurology, University of Muenster, Muenster, Germany. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 2007 May;87(4):597-609. Epub 2006 Dec 20.
  7. Acute cardiovascular exercise and executive control function. Hillman, C.H., Snook, E.M., Jerome, G.J. Department of Kinesiology, 213 Freer Hall, 906 South Goodwin Avenue, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL. The International Journal of Psychophysiology, The International Journal of Psychophysiology,  2003 Jun;48(3):307-14.
  8. The effect of acute aerobic and resistance exercise on working memory. Pontifex, M.B., Hillman, C.H., Fernhall, B., et al. Department of Kinesiology and Community Health, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2009 Apr;41(4):927-34.
  9. The effect of acute aerobic and resistance exercise on working memory. Pontifex, M.B., Hillman, C.H., Fernhall, B. Department of Kinesiology and Community Health, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2009 Apr;41(4):927-34.
  10. Spatial memory is improved by aerobic and resistance exercise through divergent molecular mechanisms. Cassilhas, R.C., Lee, K.S., Fernandes, J., et al. Psychobiology and Exercise Research Center, CEPE, São Paulo, Brazil. Neuroscience, 2012 Jan 27;202:309-17. Epub 2011 Dec 2.
  11. Increasing adult hippocampal neurogenesis is sufficient to improve pattern separation. Sahay, A., Scobie, K.N., Hill, A.S., et al.Department of Neuroscience, Columbia University, New York, New York. Nature, 2011 Apr 28;472(7344):466-70. Epub 2011 Apr 3.
  12. Adult hippocampal neurogenesis, synaptic plasticity and memory: facts and hypotheses. Bruel-Jungerman, E., Rampon, C., Laroche, S. Laboratoire de Neurobiologie de l'Apprentissage, de la Mémoire et de la Communication, CNRS UMR 8620, University Paris-Sud, Orsay, France. Reviews in the Neurosciences, 2007;18(2):93-114.
  13. Exercise: a behavioral intervention to enhance brain health and plasticity. Cotman, C.W., Berchtold, N.C. Institute for Brain Aging and Dementia, Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, University of California, Irvine, CA. Trends in Neuroscience, 2002 Jun;25(6):295-301.
  14. Training augments resistance exercise induced elevation of circulating brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).Yarrow, J.F., White, L.J., McCoy, S.C., et al. VA Medical Center GRECC, Gainesville, FL. Neuroscience Letters, 2010 Jul 26;479(2):161-5. Epub 2010 May 27.
  15. Linking brains and brawn: exercise and the evolution of human neurobiology. Raichlen, D.A., Polk, J.D. School of Anthropology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ. Proceedings. Biological Sciences 2013;280(1750):20122250.

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