Skip to main content
Aerobic exercise is an easy, natural way to boost all aspects of cognitive performance.
Most people never consider aerobic exercise as a means to improve cognitive performance, but it can do so, not just in the short term, but the long term as well.
To determine if the relationship between aerobic exercise and cognitive improvement stemmed from causation instead of correlation, researchers examined the effects of aerobic exercise on those who did not exercise. They measured individuals’ cognitive abilities, and then enrolled them in an aerobic exercise program. Statistically significant improvements in their cognitive abilities were seen in just four months. Four months may seem like a long time, but keep in mind they were not doing anything else advocated in this regimen.
How does aerobic exercise improve cognitive performance?
The human brain needs energy. Even though the brain accounts for approximately 2% of an individual's body weight, it uses 20% of our body's total energy supply. This is over 10 times what we would expect. Fortunately, aerobic exercise helps our brain obtain the energy it needs to carry out all cognitive functions.
Glucose and other metabolic products are our body's preferred energy source. They are absorbed into the bloodstream through the small intestines, circulated in the body and taken up by cells. When cells metabolize glucose for energy, its molecular structure is altered through a violent process which tears atoms apart. This process is not perfect and it generates loose electrons. When these elections are left unchecked, they combine with other molecules to become an extremely toxic substance we call "free radicals". If free radicals are not neutralized they will destroy cells and can damage DNA.
Why don't these free radicals quickly kill you? Oxygen acts like a sponge and absorbs elections before they do too much damage. So, while your blood carries glucose, which is metabolized into deadly free radicals, it also carries oxygen, which neutralizes the free radicals. Oxygen reacts with the free radicals to produce a different toxin, carbon dioxide, which we are constantly breathing out of our body.
As the brain uses 20% of our body's energy supply, it generates a considerable number of free radicals. Depriving the brain of the oxygen it needs to neutralize free radicals will cause permanent damage in as little as 6 minutes. Coma and death are likely to occur by 9 minutes.
Aerobic exercise strengthens your heart. The stronger your heart is, the more blood it pumps to your brain. Not only does this help fuel the brain's lust for glucose, but it also provides oxygen the brain needs to protect itself from free radicals. The end result is a boost to most cognitive functions.
In addition to providing the brain glucose and oxygen, aerobic exercise increases the rate of neurogenesis in the hippocampus, and increases BDNF (brain–derived neurotrophic factor) levels. BDNF is a protein categorized as a neurotrophin. Specifically, BDNF supports the survival of existing neurons and encourages the growth of new neurons and new synaptic connections.
Simply put, aerobic exercise increases the rate of neuron production in your hippocampus, facilitates the creation of new synapses, and increases the efficiency of synaptic connections. Aerobic exercise also increases the release of the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine. Serotonin helps regulates mood, appetite, sleep, learning, and memory. Norepinephrine helps regulate and increase your brain’s oxygen supply.
When you engage in aerobic exercise, you are improving all three driving forces behind cognitive function.
Dr. Art Kramer, a professor in Psychology at the university of Illinois, and member of the Campus Neuroscience Program addressed this question in his book, “The Sharp Brain’s Guide to Brain Fitness”
He stated, “At least 30-60 minutes of aerobic exercise, per day, for at least 3 days per week has been shown to have a positive impact on cognitive function in a variety of experiments. This exercise does not have to be strenuous either. Fast walking works.”
This means if you commit yourself to this program, you should engage in 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at least three times a week. But try to steadily increase the amount of exercise you obtain. A study cited in the book "Brain Rules" by John Medina followed 10,000 British civil servants between the ages of 35 and 55. Their exercise habits were graded as low, medium, or high. Those graded "low" measured poorest in the fluid intelligence category while those graded "high" performed the best. "Brain Rules" Aerobic Exercise References.
Engaging in 1 hour of aerobic exercise, 5 days a week is ideal, but getting to that point will take time and getting started can be difficult. Do not forget that fast walking counts. If you are unable to jog or run for 60 minutes, jogging for 20 and walking for 40 is also productive. When it comes to increasing brain power through aerobic exercise, more is always better, but physical exercise will not be enough. Mental exercise is even more important.
1. Improving Your Intelligence is Possible After All
2. Lifestyle Strategies to Maximize Brainpower
3. Optimizing Your Diet for Mental Performance
4. Mental Exercise
5. Nootropic Supplementation