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If an exam or assignment deadline is too close for comfort and your study session has become a brutal slog, 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.

Physical activity makes us smarter

Increasingly, research is indicating 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 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?
Getting moving can improve our mental functioning in the short term, helping us pass an exam (and throughout our lives, helping us stave off dementia). “If you are having a mental block, go for a jog or hike,” writes Dr. Justin Rhodes, who researches the effects of physical activity on the brain at the University of Illinois, in Scientific American. 

If you tend to focus best in the class that immediately follows your game of Ultimate Frisbee, this could be why. In a recent survey by Student Health 101, 76 percent of respondents said physical activity had brought them mental or intellectual benefits, such as improved memory, focus, or efficiency. Another 17 percent were unsure.

Does your physical fitness predict your academic success?
In a 2009 study of young men, researchers were able to use changes in the men’s cardiovascular fitness through middle to late adolescence to predict their cognitive performance at 18 (after accounting for other influences). Physical activity could be an important tool for improving educational outcomes, the researchers concluded (PNAS: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2009).

Exercise makes us better at simple and difficult mind tasks

A 2003 analysis of multiple studies, published in the journal Acta Psychologica, found that physical activity can improve our mental performance in various ways:

  • Physical activity can make us quicker and more efficient at certain mental tasks, and sometimes more accurate too.
  • Aerobic exercise improves our working memory and concentration. It helps us switch between tasks without making errors.
  • The benefits of exercise can be seen in simple tasks (for example, speedier reaction times) and complex problem-solving tasks (like creative brainstorming).

Students: “How exercise improves my academics”

Better memory  
“I took up running for a year. It helped me de-stress and get motivated, and these factors helped me to enhance my memory by improving my ability to concentrate.”
—Ruth D., fourth-year undergraduate, Trinity Western University, British Columbia

Improved problem solving 
“Exercising gives me time to think about problems and refresh my mental state.”
—Keith S., first-year graduate student, Fleming College, Ontario

Higher grades
“Since I have started exercising regularly, my memory has improved and I perform better on exams.”
—Alisha K., fourth-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario

More productive
“When I go for a run I am often able to think of paper ideas clearly and am more productive working on said papers afterwards.”
—Aline B., third-year undergraduate, Trinity Western University, British Columbia

More motivated
“Generally I am more motivated to work, and able to focus more easily on my work, after I’ve recently worked out.”
—Charles R., first-year undergraduate, Mount Allison University, New Brunswick

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 breathless or sweaty, like running, cycling, or basketball.

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.

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 vigour. The brain benefits seem to be “in proportion with the intensity of the activity,” says
Dr. Justin Rhodes, a psychologist at the University of Illinois who researches the effects of physical activity on the brain. “If you walk sluggishly, you get a little benefit. If you run, you get more.” (Quoted on the University of Illinois website). 

Activities involving motor coordination (like dance) or strategy (like a team sport) are especially beneficial for the brain. “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. “The person who plays a sport that involves a team and more critical thinking, such as cutting and manoeuvering, will experience a different benefit than the person who gets on the treadmill for half an hour,” says Dr. Steve Keeler, lead physician for Swimming Canada and member of clinical faculty at the University of British Columbia.

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 cognitive function declines. Being so physiologically depleted compromises our speed of information processing and memory, according to Acta Psychologica (2003). In other words, it was wise of you not to run a half-marathon the morning of your exam.

Does my fitness level make a difference?

Several studies suggest that people who are routinely active and physically fit may experience a bigger brain boost from exercise than sedentary people do, according to Acta Psychologica (2003).

Some brain effects may also be bigger for those who are experienced in sports that require rapid responses and decision making. For example, in one study, participants with fencing experience had the strongest performance improvements (e.g., quicker reaction time).

“Just playing any sport where you need quick reaction times, such as volleyball, helped improve [my] thinking and also helped relieve [my] stress.”
—Name withheld, second-year undergraduate, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology

“Dancing helps me with memorization because learning choreography and remembering it is a developed skill.”
—Brandon G., fourth-year undergraduate, University of Calgary, Alberta

“Hockey, running, and squash give me a better attitude for learning and remembering things more easily.”
—Grace H., second-year undergraduate, University of Windsor, Ontario

It works for mice too. Check this out.

Researchers compared the IQ gains of mice in four different living environments. Some had a running wheel; some had toys and highly flavoured 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 that had other sources of stimulation.

For mouse brainpower, “Only one thing had mattered, and that’s whether they had a running wheel,” said Dr. Justin Rhodes of the University of Illinois (speaking to the New York Times).

Smart moves

How to use exercise to raise your grades

  • Incorporate aerobic (cardiovascular) 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, do several minutes of jumping jacks, pushups, burpees, and other moves that get your heart pumping—or take a short walk or hit the stairs
  • Circuit workouts will boost your brainpower while you work on strength or flexibility too
  • If you’re physically fit, try high-intensity interval training (HIIT)

The following examples are methods that researchers have used in studies. Brain benefits are not exclusive to these activities. Try various forms of cardio 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 involving students. Walking helps with tasks requiring “a fresh perspective or new ideas,” according to researchers who published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. Walking works outdoors or on a treadmill.

For brainstorming, get a half-hour of moderate cardio

In a 2005 study, 60 university students got 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise. They followed that with creativity tests measuring their brainstorming skills. The brain boost was effective for at least two hours after exercising (Creativity Research Journal).

For creative thinking and problem solving—dance!

Twenty-one young women took a 20-minute dance class, and 16 did not, before undergoing 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 assigned to either a 10-minute activity involving more complicated, coordinated exercise or to a regular sports lesson. Afterward, the teens who had been engaged in coordinated exercise had bigger improvements on a test of attention and concentration than the others, according to Neuroscience Letters.

For better memory, work out strenuously

In a 2011 study, sedentary male students took a memory test. Then half of them rode a stationary bike, revving up the pace until they were exhausted, and the others were inactive. When they retook the test, the students who had exercised improved on their scores while the rested students did not, according to Physiology & Behavior.

Students: “How these workouts worked for me”

“I like to work out and play a variety of sports. I feel better when I’m in better shape, and I am mentally more energetic when I am active.”
—Bryan W., fifth-year undergraduate, University of Regina, Saskatchewan

“I find if I work out before an exam I am more capable of focusing on the questions. My overall performance on tests is also higher when I go to the gym.”
—Angelika D., fifth-year undergraduate, Mount Royal University, Alberta

“By getting out and running again, I generally have felt better throughout the day, have been sleeping better, and have been more interested in my coursework than when I was being more lethargic.”
—Gordon T., fifth-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

“When I participate in physical activity during my lunch break, it clears my mind and allows me to function more effectively in the afternoon. I regularly swim or walk during lunch.”
—Lisa S., first-year graduate student, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador

“Rowing is a great whole body workout, and it just helps me relax. This helps me focus and I noticed I’m ‘sharper’ when I exercise.”
—Taylor F., fifth-year undergraduate, University of Regina, Saskatchewan

“In one of the dance classes I teach, when I know the kids have a big test coming up, I incorporate terms, definitions, and other things they need to know into the movements, which they seem to find helpful.”
—Laura B., second-year undergraduate, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador

Five ways physical activity boosts our brain

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,” writes Dr. Rhodes in Scientific American.

“Exercise helps me focus and gives me mental clarity because my body is warmed up and more blood is pumped to my brain.”
—Kayla B., second-year undergraduate, University of Guelph, Ontario

Cardio boosts brain growth

Physical activity activates the hippocampus, a brain region involved in learning and memory. It 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,” says Dr. Ahmad Salehi, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, California (talking to the New York Times).

“Being physically active stimulates my brain. I find that I am more able to participate or focus on the task on hand.”
—Sheila G., first-year graduate student, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology

Exercise acts like medication

Physical activity influences the same neurotransmitters that are targeted by antidepressant and ADHD medication, says Dr. Ratey, a neuropsychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. This is why a workout “is akin to taking a mix of Prozac and Ritalin.” Among these effects, exercise helps us visually pick out relevant information from a confusing or chaotic scene, according to Acta Psychologica (2003).

“I like to jog on the treadmill at the gym for about 30–50 minutes. It helps to clear my head, burn off excess energy, and make me more focused when working later on.”
—Name withheld, fourth-year undergraduate, University of New Brunswick

“Powerlifting helps me to focus on completing homework and studying early.”
—Ashton R., third-year undergraduate, University of Windsor, Ontario

“Weightlifting and cardiovascular training both have improved my mental focus and clarity.”
—Stephanie R., second-year graduate student, St. Clair College, Ontario

Cardio regulates energy and sleep

Physical activity regulates our sleep and our energy through the day. In studies involving students, lower GPAs are associated with irregular sleep patterns, later bedtimes, and later wake-up times. Some evidence suggests that memory formation may be prompted by deep sleep and then consolidated by REM sleep, helping to explain why we need the sequential stages of the sleep cycle.

“Yoga has helped me relax, and ultimately I sleep better regardless of how many hours of sleep I get.”
—Marina B., second-year undergraduate, Fleming College, Ontario

“Exercise relaxes my muscles and makes me sleep well, which in turn increases my mental capability.”
—Charles R., first-year undergraduate, Mount Allison University, New Brunswick

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.

“Playing intramural sports allows me to take my mind off of the stresses of being a student for a short while, rejuvenating myself when I go back to tackle those tasks.”
—Jeremy G., fourth-year undergraduate, Queen’s University, Ontario

“Cardio and weight training make me de-stress. I feel like I can focus on my schoolwork more when my stress levels diminish.”
—Brittany M., second-year undergraduate, Mount Royal University, Alberta

“I take a fitness class two to three times a week. Each class is different but it helps me calm down after a stressful day of book work, or it helps me wake up in the morning to start my day.”
—Alexandria O., first-year undergraduate, Fleming College, Ontario

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“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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Lucy Berrington is a health writer, editor, and communications manager. Her work has been published in numerous publications in the US and UK. She has an MS in health communication from Tufts University School of Medicine, Massachusetts, and a BA from the University of Oxford, UK.