Can exercise make me smarter?

Exercise can help you concentrate and think more clearly. Recent research on children stated that if children exercised in the morning prior to starting there school day the effects were remarkable. Children could concentrate for longer periods of time, take in more information and remember more information. Grades rose dramatically for those children who worked out versus those children who did not. Working out in the morning provided children with more energy to get through the day and the ability to start off the day being able to think more clearly.The same results hold true for adults. 
Kathy Shain

Exercise is not only great for the body; it is great for the brain as well.  According to John Ratey- MD, the author of SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and The Brain, exercise changes the brain.  Exercise causes many positive changes in the brain when it comes to dealing with stress, depression, and anxiety. In addition to the physical and emotional changes that exercise has, scientists are now discovering that exercise can even improve your ability to think better.

      Neuroscientists are in the process of proving that exercise can actually increase the amount of neurons (brain cells) and their connections.  It was long believed that the amount of  neurons do not increase until recent research, using high power scanning machines, showed that with exercise certain parts of the brain do produce new neurons.   The increase in neurons and neuron connections seems to be caused by an increase in the amount of growth factors produced in the body (mainly brain-derived neurotrophic factor- BDNF.)  Exercise increases BDNF.  Doctor John Ratey calls BDNF  “miracle-gro for the brain.”  Studies have found that mice that have a running wheel in their cage have twice as many neurons in certain parts of their brains than mice without a running wheel.  There have also been many studies that have tested exercisers and non-exercisers with different cognitive test before and after exercise.  After a bout of exercise, the exercise group almost always increased their scores where the non-exercise group scores stayed the same.  

     Everyone that exercises knows that you feel much better physically and emotionally after a good run.  The part you may not have been aware of is the increased ability to think better.  The human body was created to move.  The more you move the better your body and mind works.  So the next time you have a paper to write or a problem to solve slip on your running shoes or go to the gym first to increase your brains ability to reach its highest potential.*

*Ratey, John M.D., and Eric Hagerman. Spark The Revolutionary New Science Of Exercise And The Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008.


In general, yes, and it can certainly help keep you from getting “less smart”, meaning exercise has been shown to be the most powerful anti-aging tool for preserving or improving brain function. Exercise improves brain health much like it does for other parts of the body. It increases the growth of brain cells and blood vessels while reducing damaging inflammation. All these brain exercise induced factors work to improve learning and memory, delay age-related cognitive decline, reduce risk of neurodegeneration (brain cells declining) and plays a role in alleviating or staving off depression.
One of the most famous research projects regarding exercise and intelligence came out of the Naperville Ill. school system where students were put into “Zero Hour” Physical Education (P.E.) to determine whether working out (high intensity fitness workouts, not sports or “standard P.E.”) before school would give kids a boost in learning compared to kids that did standard P.E. later in the day. The answer was yes. The students in Zero Hour scored better in almost all areas of learning and reading. Exercise clearly heightened their senses, focus, improved moods and they were all more motivated and invigorated to participate in class compared to the other group.
So yes, in many ways for the old and young, exercise can make and/or keep you smarter.
Robert Wildman, PhD
Nutrition & Dietetics
It is definitely the smart thing to do. So if you are grading yourself on making good choices for better health, performing regular exercise would raise your score and you would consider yourself smarter. To answer the real question whether there is proof that regular exercise increases cognition, the answer is yes. This regular aerobic exercise is clearly linked to better performance in school for kids, in brain activity for adults and cognitive capabilities for older individuals.
In children, exercise has been shown to improve cognitive function improve motor skill development, and children who are active do better on standardized tests and have better grades. In adults, especially as we age regular physical activity especially form that are challenging physically like golf, bowling, dancing help people retain motor skills, increases memory and slows the aging process of the brain. Studies show that very active people who engage regularly physical activities have much lower rates of memory loss, dementia, Alzheimer’s and do better on cognitive function tests over time. So yes exercise will make you smarter and allow you to remain smart for as long as possible.
Students at Naperville High School near Chicago doubled their reading scores and upped their math scores by a factor of 20 simply by exercising before they went to class. Scientists theorize that in addition to increasing blood flow to the brain, physical activity stimulates the release of neurotransmitters that help enhance problem solving. The specific type of exercise may not matter much, as positive effects have been noted from walking, sitting on balance balls, and performing a series of multi-joint movements in rapid succession.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.