Does exercise make you smarter?

Memory games, sudoku puzzles and crosswords have been touted as some of the most effective ways to boost brain health and cognitive performance.

For those of you who prefer to get up and move, there’s another way to keep your brain healthy and agile…


Body performance = brain performance

One of the most effective ways to evaluate how physical activity translates into learning ability is to study the younger, school-going population. A myriad of studies have been performed over the last few years with overwhelming conclusive evidence that physical fitness in this subset of the population enhances both motor and cognitive learning ability, which translates into improved academic achievement1,2,3,4.

What about in adults, where our brain function is not in the developmental phase any more like it is in school children?

Well, when we look at cognitive diseases such as Alzhiemer’s and Parkinson’s, and we then evaluate the effects that physical activity has on them, we can begin to see just how valuable it is to brain health to get up and get moving, especially as an adult.

Research shows that the amount of physical activity that a person does across their lifestyle has a profound protective role on these devastating diseases. Additionally, there’s a relationship between the implementation of physical activity as a therapeutic target in those who have already been diagnosed with cognitive decline, where it has been shown to slow the progression of these diseases5,6.

The reason exercise improves cognitive function involves several complex mechanisms. They have been suggested as being a combination of the following7,8,9:

  • Exercise boosts blood flow to the brain.

Angiogenesis, the process whereby the body makes new blood vessels, is stimulated throughout exercise. With new blood vessels being formed, it improves the flow of blood to the brain, which may improve the brain’s ability to make and repair brain cells10.

One study shows how a 1-hour aerobic exercise program, completed by older adults with cognitive decline just three times a week, increased their brain volume in 6 months11.

  • Free radical damage to the brain is reduced as a result of exercise.

When you exercise, the body produces more natural antioxidant molecules, which reduces the damage free radicals are able to have on brain tissue12.

Free radical production increases with ageing. It’s natural. The exposure to our environment and what we do reduces the body’s ability to manage inflammation and toxins like we did when we were younger and it leads to a higher number of free radicals in our system. When it comes to the brain, free radicals chip away at cognitive health as they - amongst other factors - they reduce the brain’s ability to clear waste, which can have dramatic effects on performance and learning.

  • Exercise improves the production of chemicals in the brain that are essential to its optimal function.

Physical activity improves the production and transmission of brain chemicals such as dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. Not only does this offer benefit to mood, which can reduce the risk of depression, these brain chemicals have a protective effect on the memory and enhances the function of the learning centers of the brain13.

How does this translate into your own life, you may ask?


Making the most out of exercise to boost your brain performance

Many of you are working high-pressure jobs, leading teams and taking part in critical strategy sessions. Others will be getting back into studying or taking on a task in their everyday life that requires their brain to be working at peak performance for hours on end.

Exercise can help.

Studies have confirmed that work performance increases when accompanied by a regular routine that includes physical activity14. In addition, fewer sick days and lower levels of stress are associated with daily exercise in office workers15,16.

It’s understandable then why reports show that some of the world’s top CEOs make sure that exercise is part of their daily routine. In a recent article by Business Insider, it was revealed that two habits were most common among nine top-ranked New York City CEOs. The first was that they checked their email first thing, and the second was that they worked out in the morning, many explaining that it helped them prepare for the day ahead17.

With the expectations of a CEO being to manage and deliver on the many complex moving parts of a business, it certainly is interesting to note that exercise may play a profound role in one’s ability to do so. Imagine what it could do for you in your everyday life.

Whether it’s before a big presentation, a strategy meeting, writing an exam, or even when you’re simply feeling a little overwhelmed by the tasks you have ahead of you on any given day, remember the effects that exercise can have on you, and take a break to take part in even a short bout of physical activity.

It’s a great time to take a moment for yourself, away from the stress of the task, but it gets your body moving, the blood flowing, and it will have a significant effect on your brain and its ability to perform.



  1. Abdelkarim, O., et al. Relationship between motor and cognitive learning abilities among primary school-aged children. Alexandria Journal of Medicine. 2016. 53(4):325-331.
  2. Lentillon-Kaestner V., & Patelli G. Effects of Grouping Forms, Student Gender and Ability Level on the Pleasure Experienced in Physical Education. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 2016, 35(3):251-262.
  3. Phillip, D., et al. Enhancing Children's Cognition With Physical Activity Games. Human Kinetics. 2015.
  4. Donnelly, J., et al. Physical Activity, Fitness, Cognitive Function, and Academic Achievement in Children: A Systematic Review. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016 Jun; 48(6): 1197–1222.
  5. Paillard, T., et al. Protective Effects of Physical Exercise in Alzheimer's Disease and Parkinson's Disease: A Narrative Review. J Clin Neurol. 2015 Jul;11(3):212-219.
  6. Buchman A., et al. Total daily physical activity and the risk of AD and cognitive decline in older adults. Neurology 2012;78:1323–1329.
  7. Um H., et al. Treadmill exercise represses neuronal cell death in an aged transgenic mouse model of Alzheimer's disease. Neurosci Res 2011;69:161–173.
  8. Forbes D., et al. Exercise programs for people with dementia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2013;12:CD006489.
  9. de Andrade L., et al. Benefits of multimodal exercise intervention for postural control and frontal cognitive functions in individuals with Alzheimer's disease: a controlled trial. J Am Geriatr Soc 2013;61:1919–1926.
  10. Erickson K., et al. Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2011;108:3017–3022.
  11. Colcombe S., et al. Aerobic exercise training increases brain volume in aging humans. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2006;61:1166–1170.
  12. Radak Z., et al. Exercise plays a preventive role against Alzheimer's disease. J Alzheimers Dis 2010;20:777–783.
  13. Lin, T., & Kuo, Y. Exercise Benefits Brain Function: The Monoamine Connection. Brain Sci. 2013 Mar; 3(1): 39–53.
  14. Christensen, J., et al. The effect of intelligent physical exercise training on sickness absence and job performance among office workers. Danish National Research Database. 2015. 2284001720.
  15. Salvagioni, D., et al. Physical, psychological and occupational consequences of job burnout: A systematic review of prospective studies. PLoS One. 2017.
  16. Puig-Ribera, A., et al. Self-reported sitting time and physical activity: interactive associations with mental well-being and productivity in office employees. BMC Public Health. 2015. 15(72).
  17. Lebowitz, S. 9 New York City CEOs share the morning routines that set them up for success. Business Insider. 2018.

Similar Articles

Should you exercise when it’s hot outside?
Can't take the heat? Don't stay in the proverbial kitchen - get out! In this post we give our tips and tricks for working out in a hot environment, and the dangers of pushing yourself too hard!
No time to exercise? Just doing 5 minutes of this can help!
These days, time is a luxury that many can't afford - so how are you supposed to find the time to get in a workout? In this post, we talk about an exercise that's so quick and easy it can be done in only 5 minutes! Sound too good to be true? Find out for yourself!
Boost your athletic performance with a sustainable diet
There are so many diets on the market, and they can all be so overwhelming! In this post we talk about the ins-and-outs of diet and nutrition, and what diet you should REALLY be following!