We all know by now that exercising is good for us. From encouraging social connections that can help boost mental health to assisting in build lean muscle mass or preventing cardiovascular ailments, there’s rarely a reason skip a workout – unless you’re not feeling too good, of course. But can exercise really improve your brainpower? Can it make you smarter?
For a while now, we’ve known that exercise can protect your brain. However, while much of the research up until this point has focused on the impact of regular exercise on slowing cognitive decline in older adults, new research is showing that the effects may not be limited to older people or to preventing later brain trouble.
The latest evidence comes courtesy of scientists from Germany, who conducted a large-scale study based on 1200 adults of an average 28.8 years of age, taking into account factors that scientists described as “often overlooked” in similar studies, including body weight, blood glucose levels, education status and age, among others.
They found a correlation between those who performed better on a two-minute walking test and those who displayed higher overall cognitive function. What’s more, they found that in general, the better their performance in the walking test, the stronger the structural integrity of white matter, which is crucial to improving the speed and quality of nerve connections in the brain (1).
Previously it had been contended that childhood fitness bore the most impact on brain development, with inactivity impacting everything from emotional intelligence to academic performance. However, it was believed that this levelled out with age, with one such study arguing that: “Following the rapid cognitive development in childhood, young adulthood (i.e., 18–35) is characterized by relative stability and peak cognitive performance,” and that the benefits of exercise on the brain once again show themselves later in life (2).
However, this new evidence appears to show that this correlation between fitness and cognitive function continues well into adulthood. Although scientists can’t say exactly how this works at this stage, it paves the way for further research into the topic. At present, it’s also not known whether resistance training has the same brain-protecting impact as anaerobic training, with research having previously been limited by comparatively small sample sizes.
As we say, more research still needs to be done on this topic - so, what else can you do to boost brain health in the meantime? Well, there’s the usual: taking time away from your screens, making sure you get enough sleep, controlling stress levels and eating a balanced, healthy diet.
1. Nils Opel, Stella Martin, Susanne Meinert, Ronny Redlich, Verena Enneking, Maike Richter, Janik Goltermann, Andreas Johnen, Udo Dannlowski & Jonathan Repple. White matter microstructure mediates the association between physical fitness and cognition in healthy, young adults.
Scientific Reports 9; 12885 (2019).
2. Michelle W. Voss, Lindsay S. Nagamatsu, Teresa Liu-Ambrose, and Arthur F. Kramer. Exercise, brain, and cognition across the life span
. Journal of Applied Physiology 1505-1513 (2011).