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Can Exercise Make You Smarter?

Can Exercise Make You Smarter?Scientists have long studied exercise and its impact on any number of physical and emotional factors, including bone density, cardiovascular disease and stress.

But if we take the mind-body connection one step further and study exercise and cognitive functioning, will we see a link?

Cognition is your brain’s ability to acquire and process knowledge through thought, experience and your senses.  It involves thinking, remembering, judging and problem-solving.

Our ability to take in information and reason informs our social behavior and can contribute to life’s successes.  For example, you might make a judgment call about whether it is the right time to ask for a raise based on knowledge you’ve acquired and synthesized about your work environment.

A number of research studies have identified a link between improved cognitive functioning and exercise in elderly people.  A 2004 study, for example, found that exercise did, in fact, improve the cognitive functioning of elderly people with cognitive impairments or dementia.  In an analysis of more than 30 years of data and 2,020 subjects, this study found that groups who exercised fared better in terms of mental acuity than those who did not exercise.

Can the same be true for adults of all ages?  According to a recent study presented at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress and reported in the Wall Street Journal, it can.

This small study involved overweight, sedentary adults.  They first underwent a series of assessments and then completed twice-weekly exercise sessions.  These sessions involved both cardiovascular exercise (biking) and weight training, lasting for four months.

The fitness gains for the group were clear, with reduced waist circumference and lower body weight.  Researchers reported the more surprising result:  “significantly and clinically” improved functioning on tests of mental acuity.

“Even ten minutes can change your brain,” says Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Ratey, author of the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.  According to Ratey, exercise increases the level of brain chemicals called growth factors.  It is these growth factors that help make new brain cells and establish new connections between brain cells to help us learn.

German researchers found that high school students scored better on high-attention tasks after completing 10 minutes of a complicated fitness task.  Their research suggests that complicated physical activities, such as tennis or dance, enhance our attention and concentration, thereby improving our capacity to learn.

A 2011 Canadian study found that in an elderly population even those who engaged in short walks, cooking, gardening and cleaning scored better on cognitive tests than those who were more sedentary.

According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise has a wide array of benefits including weight control, combating health problems and disease, improved mood, greater energy, better sleep, better sex and more fun.  If these advantages aren’t enough to get you motivated, maybe knowing that it also improves your mind will.

Can Exercise Make You Smarter?

Christy Matta, MA

Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of "The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free You from Needless Anxiety, Worry, Anger, and Other Symptoms of Stress."

Christy has worked in mental health since 1994, is intensively trained in Dialectical Behavior Therapy(DBT) and has extensive training in Mindfulness. She is an experienced group leader and trainer in both Mindfulness and DBT Skills Groups. Christy blogs regularly for Psych Central at Dialectical Behavior Therapy Understood.

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APA Reference
Matta, C. (2018). Can Exercise Make You Smarter?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 9 Nov 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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