5 Ways to Get Smarter While You Exercise

Learn the 5 ways that you can train your brain to become more fatigue-resistant and actually get smarter while you exercise.

Ben Greenfield
5-minute read
Episode #221

Two recent articles about the link between exercise and your brain got me...well...thinking!

The first article appeared in Runners World magazine and investigated something called “brain plasticity” in skill sports versus endurance sports. Brain plasticity basically refers to the ability of the brain to grow new neurons and neuronal pathways.

Skill sports are sports that require some kind of fine motor skill and attention to detail and strategy, such as tennis, golf, gymnastics, dance, and basketball, to name a few. Endurance sports, on the other hand, refer to chronic repetitive motion activities such as swimming, cycling, or running.

The article explains that skill sports produce far more brain plasticity than endurance sports. The author isn't saying that swimming, cycling and running require no skill output whatsoever, but they certainly require less of a skill component than, say, hitting a golf ball 250 yards.

The second article on this topic appeared in Outside magazine and explained that you can actually train your brain to be more resistant to fatigue just like you can train your muscles. Brain training includes activities that make your brain “tired” such as crossword puzzles, sudoku, or those brain-training smartphone apps like Brainscape, Lumosity, or N-back training.

The end result is that as you play these types of brain games, you're actually training your brain to be less susceptible to fatigue when it really counts, such as in the clutch game of a tennis set, or shooting the game-deciding free throw in the fourth quarter, or completing that quadruple pirouette in the final scene of Swan Lake

The fact is that when your brain “gets tired,” it can actually result in your body prematurely giving up, even during less mindful activities such as running a marathon or competing in a bicycle race. 

Now that you know that your brain can become more agile and fatigue-resistant, let’s jump into 5 ways that you can use this information to actually get smarter while you exercise:

Tip #1: Train Your Balance

Sure, you may not have a regular habit of playing tennis, hitting a golf ball, or dancing professionally, but that doesn’t mean your routine trip to a gym or health club can’t involve activities that challenge your eyes, your ears, and your joints - which all keep your brain firing when they’re stimulated.

For example, I keep a half foam roller in my home gym. It looks just like it sounds - a foam roller split in half. In between weight lifting sets, I stand on it and practice balance. You can find a half roller or a balance board at any sporting goods store. A balance board is a skateboard-like device with a fulcrum such as ball or wedge in the middle. You stand on it (or even do push-ups on it) to help you develop your balance skills.

Whichever device you choose, simply keep it next to your desk at work and hop on for a few minutes to build your balance. Use this as an opportunity for some downtime from staring at your computer screen. At home, keep it in your living room and practice your balance while watching TV. 

Tip #2: Break Up Your Run

If you’re a runner, and you’re concerned that your endurance activity might not be challenging enough for your brain, then try some of these tips:

  • Run on varied terrain such as trails, parks, or even urban areas with lots of stairs, twists, and turns.

  • Google the name of your city and the word “parkour” to see if there are any parkour classes or groups in your area. Parkour involves using the local environment as a sort of grown-up playground that you jump on, balance on, etc.

  • Try injecting stops into your run to do things like backwards crawls, single leg hops, or “box jumps” onto park benches. This mix will keep your muscles and your brain working.

  • Put on headphones that play music that is at 180bpm (beats per minute) and try to train your feet to keep up with the beat. This is also a great way to learn to run faster! An example of a song that is 180bpm is Tina Turner's "River Deep - Mountain High."


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.