What Kinds of Exercise Make You Smarter?

Learn some forms of exercise that can make you smarter—plus get a few quick and dirty tips on using intervals, 

Ben Greenfield
4-minute read
Episode #318

In An Exercise Trick To Make You Smarter, I introduced a compound called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, or BDNF, which is a protein that acts on neurons in your central nervous system (CNS) and peripheral nervous system (PNS) to help your existing neurons survive and thrive and also to encourage the growth of new neurons and neuronal connections (also known as “synapses”). In that post, I recommended making the BDNF flow by fitting in an aerobic 20-45 minute run, bike ride, or other bout of cardio on the morning of any day in which you have high intellectual demands.

Then I recently tweeted:

“Here’s why I like to go on a nice easy walk, simple nasal breathing jog or bike before a big cognitive task or speech: http://www.runnersworld.com/sweat-science/exercises-instant-brain-boost

So what got me so interested once again in exercise and your brain? As you’ve probably guessed if you’re a long time reader or listener, it is, yes, a new study. Let’s dive into what that study discovered, then you’ll get a few quick and dirty tips on using intervals, weight training, and cardiovascular exercise to increase BDNF and elicit a few other brain boosting effects too.

The Link Between Exercise and Intelligence

In addition to knowing about BDNF for brain survival and growth, you need to be familiar with another term: neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability of your brain to engage in the strengthening (or weakening) of existing neuronal pathways (called synaptic plasticity), or the establishment of entirely new neurons and connections (called structural plasticity).

We already know that compared to strength training, aerobic training can cause a much more significant BDNF boost, likely due to the fact that BDNF stays more “localized” to muscle tissue in response to strength training. We also know that aerobic running can inhibit the lowering of neuroplasticity that can occur after a stroke. At the same time, strength training is not useless for cognitive function. For example, one recent study showed that strength gains (not aerobic gains) in response to training were significantly associated with cognitive improvements.

But what about intense exercise that doesn’t cause a big, localized muscle “pump” that may keep BDNF in the tissue? It turns out that sprinting is a fantastic way to boost an sprinting is a fantastic way to boost BDNF and that elite sprinters have higher levels of BDNF than amateur sprinters. This is probably because intensity is a key trigger of exercise-induced BDNF increases.

Now let’s take a look at what the latest research reveals.


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.