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If an exam or assignment deadline is too close for comfort and your study session has become a struggle, you may feel you don’t have time for a workout. Chances are, though, a quick walk or 20 minutes on the basketball court is exactly what your brain needs. “If you are having a mental block, go for a jog or hike,” wrote Dr. Justin Rhodes, who researches the effects of physical activity on the brain at the University of Illinois, in Scientific American.

Physical activity makes us smarter

Increasingly, research is showing that exercise may give us a more powerful brain boost than anything else does. “Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your brain in terms of mood, memory, and learning. Even 10 minutes of activity changes your brain,” says Dr. John Ratey, author of the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little, Brown, 2008).

Have you noticed the effects on your grades?

Have you noticed the effects?

Working up a sweat can improve our mental functioning in the short-term, helping us pass an exam, and in the long-term, helping us fend off dementia.

If you tend to focus best in the class that follows PE, this is likely why. In a recent survey by Student Health 101, 77 percent of respondents said physical activity had brought them mental or intellectual benefits, such as improved memory, focus, or efficiency.

Does your physical fitness predict your academic achievement?

In a 2009 study, researchers found that young men who improved their cardiovascular fitness between ages 15 and 18 also made higher educational achievements when they were older. This could mean that physical activity has an affect on how well we do in school.

Exercise makes us better at simple and difficult mind tasks

Physical activity can improve our mental performance in various ways, as research shows:

  • Makes us quicker and more efficient
  • Improves our working memory by helping us set aside less important information and respond to current demands
  • Enhances our concentration and mental flexibility, helping us switch between tasks without making errors
  • Reduces our stress and boosts mood
  • Regulates our sleep and energy

Students: “How exercise improves my academics”

“Basketball makes me energized and I’m more focused after a game.”
—Jalen, sophomore, Hillside, Illinois

“I find when I’m having trouble remembering facts I’m trying to learn, if I go for a run and think about something else for a while, studying becomes easier.”
—Erin, Clemson, South Carolina

“I have played volleyball for a long time, and going to practices always gives me more energy to do work afterwards.”
—Allison, senior, Indianapolis, Indiana

“Whenever I’ve exercised after studying I’ve seemed to do better on the exam or paper.”
—Layla, College Park, Maryland

“Early in the morning I trained with my tennis coach and later on in the day I could think more clearly on a test that very same day.”
—Michael, sophomore, Indianapolis, Indiana

 “I went to the gym and exercised for about 30 minutes. Afterward I felt motivated and ready to sit down and study for an upcoming bio exam.”
—Julia, Newark, Delaware

For the biggest brain boost, go aerobic and get coordinated

The improvements in mental performance come from aerobic activity. That’s any workout that makes us sweaty and gets our heart and lungs pumping, like running, cycling, basketball, or swimming.

The brain boost is bigger when we’re doing complicated aerobic activities that require coordination, rhythm, strategy, and concentration, like playing tennis or taking a dance class. “You’re challenging your brain even more when you have to think about coordination. Like muscles, you have to stress your brain cells to get them to grow,” says Dr. Ratey.

Q&A: “How much cardio will help my brain?”

How hard to I need to work it?

You don’t have to exercise to the point of exhaustion, but you do need a little vigor. The brain benefits seem to be “in proportion with the intensity of the activity. If you walk sluggishly, you get a little benefit. If you run, you get more,” said Dr. Rhodes, an associate professor of psychology (quoted on the University of Illinois website). 

In most studies, participants exercised for 20–60 minutes. The effects of exercise may depend on how we work out and for how long. It’s not clear yet whether other forms of exercise, such as strength and flexibility training, also help us think more clearly or creatively.

Could exercise ever make me too tired to think straight?
Eventually, yes. When we work out to the point of dehydration, our mental function declines. Being that physically depleted compromises our ability to remember and process information quickly, according to Acta Psychologica (2003). In other words, it’s wise not to play a basketball tournament right before your exam.

Does my fitness level make a difference?

Several studies suggest that people who are routinely active and are physically fit may experience a bigger brain boost from exercise than sedentary people do. Some elements of the exercise brain boost may also be bigger for those who are experienced in sports that require rapid responses and decision-making, such as soccer or basketball. In one study, participants with fencing experience had the strongest performance improvements (e.g., quicker reaction time).

“Basketball and weight lifting help me with focusing and getting ‘in the zone.’ This enhances my ability to maintain my attention and strive to succeed. Basketball, since it is a team sport, helps my ability to adapt and communicate with others towards [the goal of] winning the game.”
—Anthony, Los Angeles, California

“I play soccer and go to the gym a lot and I generally try to be as active as possible. I have always found that after completing exercises, I feel a bit more focused and mentally sharper.”
—Cole, Santa Clara, California

It works for mice too

In a 2011 study, researchers compared the IQ gains of mice in four different living environments. Some had a running wheel; some had extra stimulants such as toys and highly flavored foods, with or without a running wheel; others had boring cages and dull diets. Several months in, the mice that exercised had healthier brains and did better on cognitive tests than the sedentary mice—even the ones who had other sources of stimulation. For brainpower, “Only one thing had mattered, and that’s whether they had a running wheel,” said Dr. Rhodes, who was involved in the research (speaking to the New York Times).

Smart moves

How to use exercise to raise your grades

  • Incorporate aerobic (cardio) activity into your regular schedule
  • Try an activity that combines aerobic exercise with coordination or strategy, such as dance or a team sport
  • For a quick brain break in your room, do several minutes of jumping jacks, pushups, or burpees
  • To reinvigorate your thinking, take a short, brisk walk or run up and down stairs
  • At the gym, circuit workouts will keep your heart and lungs working faster while building your strength
  • If you’re physically fit, try high-intensity interval training (HIIT)

The following examples are methods that researchers have used in studies. Try various forms of cardio activity and see what works for you.

For new ideas and a fresh perspective, take a walk 

We think more creatively while walking than when we are sitting, according to a 2014 study. Walking helps with tasks requiring “a fresh perspective or new ideas,” and works whether walking outdoors or on a treadmill, according to the researchers. Next time you need to come up with an essay topic, take a walk.

For brainstorming, get a half-hour of moderate cardio

In a 2005 study, 60 college students got 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise (e.g., jogging, swimming, walking fast). They followed that with creativity tests measuring their brainstorming ability. The brain boost was still effective two hours after the students stopped exercising.

For creative thinking and problem-solving, dance!

Twenty-one young women took a 20-minute dance class, and 16 did not, before taking three tests measuring their creative-thinking and problem-solving skills. In the study, the women who had danced scored higher on all three tests than the women who hadn't, Acta Psychologica reported (2003).

For improved focus, dance, play a team sport, or do a martial art 

In a 2008 study, 150 teens were split into groups. The first group did a 10-minute activity involving complicated, coordinated exercise; the second group participated in a sports lesson. Afterward, students in both groups had similar heart rates, but those who’d done the coordinated exercise scored better on attention and concentration tests, according to the journal Neuroscience Letters.

For better memory, work out strenuously

In a 2011 study, sedentary male college students took a memory test. Half then rode a stationary bike, revving up the pace until they were exhausted, and the others were inactive. When they retook the memory test, the students who’d exercised improved on their earlier scores and raised their levels of the brain-growth protein BDNF, while the inactive students did not, according to Physiology & Behavior.

Students: “How these workouts worked for me”

“Going for a short walk to collect my thoughts while working does wonders for my thought organization.”
—Douglas, Madison, Wisconsin

“Dancing and the fact that I can move around and gain a fresh perspective. I am able to regain focus and get more done.”
—Ashley, Anchorage, Alaska

“Running helps clear my mind and sometimes things I didn’t understand before make sense or I get new ideas for problem solving.”
—Rachael, Baltimore, Maryland

“Swimming helps me relax and rationally think about homework problems and how to work through them.”
—Taylor, DeKalb, Illinois

“Zumba classes help distract me when I feel overwhelmed so I can focus on organizing the tasks at hand more efficiently once I get back.”
—Kimberley, Carrollton, Georgia

“Physical activity helps me be more energized and willing to learn. It also helps me remember concepts that I’m learning in my classes.”
—Name withheld, Los Angeles, California

Five ways physical activity boosts our brain

1. Exercise sends blood to the brain

Physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, delivering extra oxygen and generating more energy. “When our ancestors worked up a sweat, they were probably fleeing a predator or chasing their next meal. During such emergencies, extra blood flow to the brain could have helped them react quickly and cleverly to an impending threat or kill prey that was critical to their survival,” wrote Dr. Rhodes in Scientific American.

“Physical activity will make the blood circulation good, [which brings] mental improvements as well.”
—Rabindra, Amherst, Massachusetts

2. Cardio boosts brain growth

Exercise activates the hippocampus, a brain region involved in learning and memory. Exercise increases our levels of brain chemicals called growth factors. These help stimulate new brain cell growth and build strong connections between those cells. The hippocampus is larger in people who exercise regularly than in people who don’t, research shows.

Perhaps most importantly, physical activity raises our levels of a protein known as BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). “The one factor that shows the fastest, most consistent and greatest response [to exercise] is BDNF. It seems to be key to maintaining not just memory but skilled task performance,” said Dr. Ahmad Salehi, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University (talking to the New York Times).

“Cardiovascular exercise seems to stimulate brain function and increases my energy level, which makes me more alert and receptive to learning.”
—David, Grand Forks, North Dakota

3. Exercise acts like medication

Exercise influences the same neurotransmitters that are targeted by antidepressant and ADHD medication, says Dr. Ratey, a neuropsychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. This is why workouts can help us de-stress and refocus.

“If my mind is scattered or I’m overwhelmed with too many projects, going for a brief, fast-paced jog helps me have better mental clarity when I go back to my tasks.”
—Elise, Boston, Massachusetts

4. Cardio regulates energy and sleep

Physical activity regulates our sleep and our energy throughout the day. In studies involving students, irregular sleep patterns, later bedtimes, and later wake-up times are associated with lower GPAs. Some evidence suggests that our ability to form memories may be prompted by deep sleep and then consolidated by REM sleep, helping to explain why we need to get enough uninterrupted sleep (so that we go through each stage of the sleep cycle during the night).

“Exercising the day before a test helps me to be well-rested for the test.”
—Ryan, College Park, Maryland

“Working out in the morning made me more awake during the school day. In turn, this helped me pay more attention in my classes.”
—Samantha, DeKalb, Illinois

5. Physical activity relieves stress and improves mood

Working out alleviates our stress and anxiety, which are barriers to clear thinking. In addition, exercise lifts our mood, so we are more likely to feel energized and confident enough to tackle the topics we find difficult.

“When I’m stressed I go on really long mountain bike rides. They leave me exhausted and make it easier to focus on what’s important.”
—John, Golden, Colorado

“Whenever I do any form of exercise, but especially cardio, I feel happier throughout that day. This keeps me optimistic and helps me to be a higher achiever and get things done early.”
—Sam*, Grand Forks, North Dakota (*Name changed)


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Jason

Sonoma, California

“Cycling! Getting your heart pumping and blood flowing on the way up, and the rush and danger of coming down, make the mind and body better connected. I always feel better after a ride and feel like I could take on anything!”

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Article sources

Aberga, M. A., Pedersenc, N. L., Torene, K., Svartengrenf, M., et al. (2009). Cardiovascular fitness is associated with cognition in young adulthood. PNAS: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(49), 20906–20911.

Bjornebekk, A., Mathe, A. A., & Brene, S. (2005). The antidepressant effect of running is associated with increased hippocampal cell proliferation. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 8(3), 357–368.

Blanchette, D. M., Ramocki, S. P., O’del, J. N., & Casey, M. S. (2005). Aerobic exercise and cognitive creativity: Immediate and residual effects. Creativity Research Journal, 17(2&3), 257–264.

Budde, H., Voelcker-Rehage, C., Pietrabyk-Kendziorra S., Ribeiro P., et al. (2008). Acute coordinative exercise improves attentional performance in adolescents. Neuroscience Letters, 441(2), 219–223.

Curcio, G., Ferrara, M., & DeGennaro, L. (2006). Sleep loss, learning capacity and academic performance. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 105(5), 323–337.

Godman, H. (2014, April 9). Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills. Harvard Health Publications. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110

Griffin, E. W., Mullaly, S., Foley, C., Warmington, S. A., et al. (2011). Aerobic exercise improves hippocampal function and increases BDNF in the serum of young adult males. Physiology & Behavior, 104(5), 934–41.

Petersen, D. (2013). Exercise boosts brainpower. University of Illinois. Retrieved from https://www.las.illinois.edu/alumni/magazine/articles/2013/brainpower/

Physical exercise for brain health. (n.d.). BrainHQ. Retrieved from https://www.brainhq.com/brain-resources/everyday-brain-fitness/physical-exercise

Reynolds, G. (2011, November 30). How exercise benefits the brain. New York Times. https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/30/how-exercise-benefits-the-brain/

Reynolds, G. (2012, April 18). How exercise could lead to a better brain. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/magazine/how-exercise-could-lead-to-a-better-brain.html?_r=0

Rhodes, J. S. (2013, July 1). Why do I think better after I exercise? Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-you-think-better-after-walk-exercise/

Spitzer, U. S., & Hollmann, W. (2013). Experimental observations of the effects of physical exercise on attention, academic and prosocial performance in school settings. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 2, 1–6. Retrieved from https://newshour-tc.pbs.org /newshour/extra/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2014/02/1-s2.0-S2211949313000045-main.pdf

Ten Brinke, L. F., Bolandzadeh, N., Nagamatsu L. S., Hsu, C. L., et al. (2014). Aerobic exercise increases hippocampal volume in older women with probable mild cognitive impairment: a 6-month randomised controlled trial. British Journal of Sports Medicine. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2013-093184 Retrieved from https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/early/2014/03/04/bjsports-2013-093184.abstract?sid=ecff0a48-d4fd-4a9d-b34a-156ca915a79e

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