Exercise to Get Smart

Medically reviewed in November 2021

Whenever I'm trying to figure out a solution to a particularly thorny problem, my first instinct is to go for a walk, hop on my bike, or take off on my inline skates. Invariably, by the end of my workout, I've come up with just the right answer to whatever it was that was bothering me.

Coincidence? I think not. And neither does Justin S. Rhodes, PhD, a psychology professor at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois and subject of a recent New York Times article.

Rhodes and his research team set out to learn which benefits the brain more: mental stimulation or exercise. To do it they gave different groups of mice brain-stimulating toys and/or running wheels, or nothing at all. What they found was pretty surprising: Only the running wheels led to a significant boost in cognitive ability.

The exercise-brain power connection makes sense. Sharecare fitness expert Vonda Wright, MD, explains it this way: "Exercise strengthens the brain's ability to learn. Even at a cellular level, we are wired for mobility. Chronic intense activity increases capillary development in the brain, enabling oxygen, glucose, and a spectrum of growth hormones access to the brain." Translation: Move and you'll get smarter.

This is especially true as you age. As Sharecare medical expert Dean Ornish, MD, points out, "Studies have shown that older adults who exercise regularly have better memory, are better at going from one mental task to another, and can focus and concentrate better than those who are sedentary."

Even children can reap sizeable brain benefits from exercise. Experts at NASM note that active kids not only do better on standardized tests than their couch-loving counterparts, but they tend to have better grades, too.

You don't have to do a full-fledged "workout" to benefit your brain. Just look for ways to sneak more movement in your everyday life by doing things like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, riding your bike to work, and parking at the far end of the parking lot, suggests NASM Elite Trainer Ann Prokenpek.

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