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

How Long Should You Exercise to Get Smarter?

In a 2015 study entitled Dose-response relation between exercise duration and cognition (which emerged since my first episode on this topic), participants took a cognitive test called a Stroop task, in which they had to identify the color of colored words flashing on the screen. For example, the word "red" might flash in red letters, then later the word "red" might flash in green letters, and participants had to sort through such confusion. The exercise they performed prior to this task was moderate-intensity cycling (at 65% intensity), for 10, 20, or 45 minutes.

It turns out that the best results were produced with 20 minutes of moderate-intensity cycling versus 10 or 45 minutes. The 45 minute session (technically 55 minutes if you include the warmup and cooldown) actually produced worse results than the group that didn’t exercise at all!

So for aerobic cycling, it appears that the sweet spot is about 20 minutes (or 30 if you include the warm-up and cool-down used in the study).

How Hard Should You Exercise To Get Smarter?

The newest study on exercise and the brain, entitled Impact of Exercise Intensity and Duration on Postexercise Executive Function, investigated not only the duration of exercise, but also the intensity.

In this study, twelve healthy male subjects performed a cycling workout at a low intensity (30%) for 20 minutes, a moderate intensity (60%) for 20 minutes. They also did a 40 minute low intensity protocol that was matched for volume with the 20 minute moderate training protocol. In a second part of this study, fifteen male subjects performed moderate intensity exercise for ten, twenty or forty minutes. They used a Stroop test in both parts of this study: before exercise, immediately after exercise, and during the 30-minute, post-exercise recovery.

For part one of the study, the researchers found that the post-exercise executive function improvement was sustained for a longer period of time after the 20 minute moderate intensity protocol than after the 40 minute low intensity protocol, and was also sustained for a longer duration after the 40 minute low intensity protocol compared to the 20 minute low intensity protocol.  For part two of the study, the 40 minute moderate intensity won out over the 10 minute and 20 minute moderate intensity.

So allow me to summarize: it appears that 20 minutes of moderate intensity at 60% improves executive function, especially compared to 30% intensity at both 20 and 40 minutes, and it also appears that if you have 40 minutes available for moderate intensity exercise, that’s even better. Just don’t creep up close to an hour of moderate intensity exercise or you begin to see a drop in cognitive function. 


Ultimately, based on this research, if you want to make yourself smarter for the day, increase BDNF or increase neuroplasticity, you should include exercise sessions such as:

-Moderate intensity 20-40 minute aerobic sessions, preferably fasted in the morning (fasting also increases BDNF)

-10 x 100 meter sprints

-Trampoline jumping for 10 minutes

-Any game that includes sprinting or hopping, such as basketball or tennis

Finally, you’ll get less bang for your buck from: A) weight training, and B) voluminous moderate intensity aerobic exercise.

Do you have questions, comments or feedback about what form of exercise makes you smarter? Join the conversation at Facebook.com/getfitguy


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.