We all know that regular exercise is good for your body, but there is a growing body of evidence that physical activity is also good for your brain. In recent years, a number of studies with both animal and human participants have demonstrated that exercise improves the ability to remember and learn. But does exercise make you smarter?
Michelle Finn had just recently given birth to her second child, and she was feeling lethargic and unfit. While she may have started a 5-times-a-week workout regimen to get her body back into shape, she noticed an unexpected benefit within just a few weeks.
“It was like a fog had lifted,” she explained. “I had more energy and just felt more mentally ‘with it.'”
Would you pick up those weights to lace up those gym shoes more often if you knew that exercise might actually make you smarter? The next time you need a boost of motivation to drag yourself out of bed and head to the gym, remember that you’re not just trimming your waistline; you’re revving up your brain as well.
Aerobic Fitness Can Boost Learning, Especially on Challenging Material
So does exercise make you smarter? Some recent research suggests that regular physical activity does have an impact on how well people learn.
Researchers in one study looked at children who were rated as either high-fitness or low-fitness. The children were asked to memorize names and locations on a fictional map, either by studying the material or by being tested on the information as they studied. The study revealed that kids who had scored high on a test of aerobic fitness performed better on a memory test than kids who scored low on aerobic fitness.
Previous research had suggested that a combination of testing and study improved recall and was less challenging than simply studying the material. Surprisingly, it was the more challenging task of studying without testing that led to better scores in the high-fitness group.
What accounts for this difference? The researchers suggested that aerobic fitness was the key.
Better physical fitness could lead to improved memory and learning in children, they suggested, particularly when it comes to challenging material. The findings, they also noted, suggest that cutting physical education programs in schools might have the unintended consequence of harming learning potential among kids.
Exercise Helps Grow New Brain Cells
Experts suggest that cardio exercise not only gives learning an important boost, but it also causes real changes inside the brain by promoting cell growth, regulating moods, and triggering the release of hormones, including dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. These hormones have a range of effects, from improving attention, increasing arousal levels, and even sharpening perception.
Numerous studies have revealed that exercise can aid in the creation of new brain cells and new neural connections. Animal research has shown that even moderate exercise helps activate neurons in the brain’s hippocampus, a region that plays an important role in memory.
In one of the earliest studies on the impact of exercise on the brain, researchers from the Salk Institute found that exercise indeed led to brain cell growth. The results were considered particularly surprising at that time because many experts had long believed that adult neurogenesis was either not possible or exceedingly rare. In the series of groundbreaking experiments, the researchers found that mice that ran several miles each night experienced far more brain cell growth in the hippocampal region than sedentary mice; They also performed much better on memory tests.
When Is the Best Time to Exercise?
One study had participants learn a new motor skill under three different conditions. Some remained sedentary, some learned the skill right after a workout, and others learned the skill and then worked out immediately afterwards.
Which group learned best?
In a follow up assessment one-hour later, those who had exercised either before or after the learning activity were at a clear advantage, but those who worked out just after learning performed the best.
The researchers suggest that one session of intense exercise immediately after a motor task can help cement the information about that motor skill into long-term memory.
What Type of Exercise Is Best?
There are many questions that still need to be answered about exactly how exercise benefits the brain. Do certain types of exercise work best for certain types of learning? Which type of exercise offers the greatest benefits? While such questions remain unanswered, researchers have found that different types of exercise may impact the brain in different ways.
Most of the evidence suggests that cardio exercise offers the greatest memory-boosting and learning-enhancement benefits, but there is also evidence that strength training can benefit the brain as well.
Researchers have also found that moderate exercise such as walking and lifting weights can help stave off memory problems associated with the aging process. One study even found that older adults who had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor to dementia and Alzheimer’s, showed improvements in both memory and language skills after following an exercise program consisting of two 90-minute sessions of aerobics, strength training, and balance exercise each week for a year.
So next time you need some motivation to get up and get some exercise, consider some of the following findings:
- Studies have shown that aerobic activities such as running has been shown to increase neurogenesis and improve the chances that those newly formed cells with survive and thrive.
- One study found that children who participated in regular aerobic exercise showed nearly a 4-point increase on cognitive tests, while those who did not exercise showed no such improvement.
- Children who are fitter have a bigger hippocampus and perform better on memory tests than their less physically-fit peers.
For Michelle Finn, the benefits from her exercise routine are incalculable.
“I feel more alert, more energetic, and more capable of keeping up with my kids,” she explains. “You know, I started working out to lose the last bit of extra baby weight, but I feel like I’ve transformed my mind just as much as my body.”
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Davis, C. L., Tamporowski, P. D., McDowell, J. E…., & Naglieri, J. A. (2011). Exercise improves executive function and achievement and alters brain activation in overweight children: A randomized controlled trial. Health Psychology, 30(1), 91-98. doi: 10.1037/a0021766.
Raine, L. B., Lee, H. K., Saliba, B. J., Chaddock-Heyman, L., Hillman, C. H., & Kramer, A. F. (2013). The influence of childhood aerobic fitness on learning and memory. PLOS One, 8(9): DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0072666.
Suzuki, T., Shimada, H., Makizako, H.,…, Park, H. (2012). Effects of multicomponent exercise on cognitive function in older adults with amnestic mild cognitive impairment: A randomized controlled trial. BMC Neurology, 12, 128. doi:10.1186/1471-2377-12-128.
Van Praag, H., Kempermann, G., & Gage, F. H. (1999). Running increases cell proliferation and neurogenesis in the adult mouse dentate gyrus. Nature Neuroscience, 2(3), 266-270.
Kendra Cherry, MS.Ed., is an author, educator, and founder of Explore Psychology, an online psychology resource. She is a health writer and editor specializing in psychology, mental health, and wellness. She also writes for Verywell Mind and is the author of the Everything Psychology book (Adams Media).
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