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New Proof that Exercise Makes You Smarter

New Proof that Exercise Makes You Smarter

Story at-a-glance -

  • More and more studies are showing that exercise can boost your intelligence and mental acuity, with brain benefits for grade-schoolers all the way up to working adults and seniors.
  • Regular exercise can improve test scores, IQ levels and task efficiency, and even make it more likely that you’ll receive a higher education and get a full-time job.
  • Staying active with a variety of activities is best, as each type of exercise may offer unique benefits for your brain health and may even help your brain to grow as you get older, rather than shrink.

Graphic Courtesy of Online College Courses


By Dr. Mercola

Exercise isn't just about losing weight or getting bigger biceps and six-pack abs.

More and more studies are showing that exercise can boost your intelligence and mental acuity, with brain benefits for grade-schoolers all the way up to working adults and seniors.

Want to Boost Your IQ? Get Better Grades? Work More Efficiently?

Exercise! In the infographic above, the evidence speaks loud and clear that regular exercise can improve test scores, IQ levels and task efficiency. Some of the research highlights include:1

  • Among elementary school students, 40 minutes of daily exercise increased IQ by an average of nearly 4 points
  • Among 6th graders, the fittest students scored 30 percent higher than average students, and the less fit students scored 20 percent lower
  • Among older students, those who play vigorous sports have a 20 percent improvement in Math, Science, English and Social Studies
  • Fit 18-year-olds are more likely to go on to higher education and get full-time jobs
  • Students who exercise before class improved test scores 17 percent, and those who worked out for 40 minutes improved an entire letter grade

Even once you're in the workforce, exercise can be an invaluable tool to increase your performance and productivity. Research shows an employee who exercises regularly is 15 percent more efficient than those who do not, which means a fit employee only needs to work 42.5 hours in a week to do the same work as an average employee does in 50.2

Boosting Your Brain Power With Exercise

Most people don't understand that your brain is pliable, and it can actually improve even after it is damaged. Exercise is a powerful way to encourage your brain to work at optimum capacity by causing nerve cells to multiply, strengthening their interconnections and protecting them from damage. Animal tests have illustrated that during exercise their nerve cells release proteins known as neurotrophic factors. One in particular, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), triggers numerous other chemicals that promote neural health, and has a direct benefit on cognitive functions, including enhanced learning.

Further, exercise provides protective effects to your brain through:

  • The production of nerve-protecting compounds
  • Greater blood flow to your brain
  • Improved development and survival of neurons
  • Decreased risk of cardiovascular diseases

So if you value your brainpower, you'll want to make certain that exercise is a regular part of your life. Staying active with a variety of activities is best, as each type of exercise may offer unique benefits for your brain health and may even help your brain to grow as you get older, rather than shrink – which is the norm.

For instance, a review of more than 100 studies, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, revealed that both aerobic and resistance training are important for maintaining cognitive and brain health in old age.3 Moderate exercise can reverse normal brain shrinkage by 2 percent, effectively reversing age-related hippocampus degeneration by one to two years.4 Also according to the study, the people in the control group who didn't exercise saw an average of 1.4 percent decrease in hippocampus size.

Now listen up… when these researchers say the hippocampus region of the brain increases in size as a response to exercise, they are talking about a powerful tool to fight the onset of Alzheimer's disease. The hippocampus, which is considered the memory center of your brain, is the first region of your brain to suffer shrinkage and impairment at the onset of Alzheimer's disease, leading to memory problems and disorientation.

So not only can exercise boost your brain power from your childhood years on up, it can help keep your brain from shrinking once you're older, so you can keep the brainpower you have.

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Tips for a Well-Rounded Exercise Program

To get all the benefits exercise has to offer, you'll want to strive for a varied and well-rounded fitness program that incorporates a variety of exercises. As a general rule, as soon as an exercise becomes easy to complete, you need to increase the intensity and/or try another exercise to keep challenging your body. I recommend incorporating the following types of exercise into your program:

  1. High-Intensity Interval (Anaerobic) Training: This is when you alternate short bursts of high-intensity exercise with gentle recovery periods. In the video below, you can see a demonstration of this in action using Peak Fitness.

  2. Strength Training: Rounding out your exercise program with a 1-set strength training routine will ensure that you're really optimizing the possible health benefits of a regular exercise program.
  3. You can also "up" the intensity by slowing it down. For more information about using super slow weight training as a form of high-intensity interval exercise, please see my interview with Dr. Doug McGuff below.

    You need enough repetitions to exhaust your muscles. The weight should be heavy enough that this can be done in fewer than 12 repetitions, yet light enough to do a minimum of four repetitions. It is also important NOT to exercise the same muscle groups every day. They need at least two days of rest to recover, repair and rebuild.

    Download Interview Transcript

  4. Core Exercises: Your body has 29 core muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your entire body, and strengthening them can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury and help you gain greater balance and stability.
  5. Exercise programs like Pilates and yoga are also great for strengthening your core muscles, as are specific exercises you can learn from a personal trainer.

  6. Stretching: My favorite type of stretching is active isolated stretches developed by Aaron Mattes. With Active Isolated Stretching, you hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body's natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints. This technique also allows your body to repair itself and prepare for daily activity. You can also use devices like the Power Plate to help you stretch.

Wondering How to Get Your Kids Hooked on Exercise?

It's easy to get kids "hooked" on video games and television, but getting them hooked on exercise is a gift that will last a lifetime.

Your child does not need to log 30-60 minutes in the gym or in a specific exercise class, unless that's really what they want to do. A game of tag here, a bike ride there... short bursts of activity with periods of rest in between will work wonders, and kids will typically fall into this behavior quite spontaneously, as long as they're outdoors and not cooped up in front of a TV or computer screen

Allow your child to choose activities that appeal to them and which are age appropriate. Remember that the trick to getting kids interested in exercise at a young age is to keep it fun. Gymnastics classes, sports, dance, hikes in the woods, canoeing, swimming, taking the dog for a walk… all count as "exercise" for kids (and for you!).

Of course, acting as a role model by staying active yourself is one of the best ways to motivate and inspire your kids. If your child sees you embracing exercise as a positive and important part of your lifestyle, they will naturally follow suit.