These days, intelligence isn’t just a product of late-night study sessions or listening to Rosetta Stone on repeat. It turns out there’s also a convincing link between exercise and cognitive function, which could motivate people to hit the gym to bulk up the body and the brain.
BURPEES FOR BRAIN POWER? — WHY IT MATTERS
There’s no shortage of research (of mice and men) that uncovers a connection between exercise and the brain   . One study discovered mice that ran every night for six-weeks doubled the size of their hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with memory and learning . (It’s unclear how long these results lasted, though.) A small experiment with 30-somethings also found a link between cardio workouts and hippocampus growth after three months of regular aerobic exercise .
In two experiments with college students, acute and high-impact cardio exercise was linked to increased vocabulary learning and reaction time  . (No flash cards necessary!) Other studies show adults’ brain-processing speed and memory improved after half an hour of moderate exercise  . And don’t just hit the roads: Research also suggests strength training not only builds muscle — it can boost cognitive functioning, too .
So how exactly does hitting the gym translate to a better brain? While the connection between burpees and the brain is not fully understood, studies have found thatexercise (both aerobic and anaerobic) could jump-start neurogenesis, aka BDNF— which is linked to learning and is responsible for populating the brain with neurons    . Some scientists point to an evolutionary explanation: Natural selection favored fitter humans over less athletic people, and the fittest of the bunch were also the ones that produced the most BDNF, aka the smartest .
GENIUS GYM RAT — THE ANSWER/DEBATE
Before we blow off the books for the bike, we should hit the gym with a side of smart skepticism. There is still a lot of grey matter (pun intended!) when it comes to intelligence and its link to exercise. While research does show a clear connection between hitting the gym and brain function, it’s unclear how much time at the gym is needed to boost brainpower, and whether the brainy effects of exercise are immediate or can have long-term results.
So while hitting the gym may not immediately make us smarter, it could boost productivity to help people get more work done. Exercise can also boost energy levels and focus, which theoretically could motivate us to hit the books. The bottom line? A little exercise is never a bad thing, and could not only make you stronger, but smarter too.
Poster by Laura Schwecherl on January 1st, 2013.