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If an exam or work deadline is too close for comfort and your review session has become a brutal slog, you may feel you don’t have time for a workout. Chances are, though, a quick walk or 20 minutes on the basketball court is exactly what your brain needs.

Physical activity makes us smarter

Increasingly, research is indicating that exercise may give us a more powerful brain boost than anything else does. “Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your brain in terms of mood, memory, and learning. Even 10 minutes of activity changes your brain,” says Dr. John Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little, Brown, 2008).

Have you noticed the effects on your grades?

Have you noticed the effects?
Getting moving can improve our mental functioning in the short term, helping us pass an exam (and throughout our lives, helping us stave off dementia). “If you are having a mental block, go for a jog or hike,” writes Dr. Justin Rhodes, who researches the effects of physical activity on the brain at the University of Illinois, in Scientific American. 

If you tend to focus best in the task that immediately follows your lunchtime soccer game, this could be why. In a recent survey by Student Health 101, 76 percent of respondents said physical activity had brought them mental or intellectual benefits, such as improved memory, focus, or efficiency. Another 17 percent were unsure.

Does your physical fitness predict your academic success?
In a 2009 study of young men, researchers were able to use changes in the men’s cardiovascular fitness through middle to late adolescence to predict their cognitive performance at 18 (after accounting for other influences). Physical activity could be an important tool for improving educational outcomes, the researchers concluded (PNAS: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2009).

Exercise makes us better at simple and difficult mind tasks

A 2003 analysis of multiple studies, published in the journal Acta Psychologica, found that physical activity can improve our mental performance in various ways:

  • Physical activity can make us quicker and more efficient at certain mental tasks, and sometimes more accurate too.
  • Aerobic exercise improves our working memory and concentration. It helps us switch between tasks without making errors.
  • The benefits of exercise can be seen in simple tasks (for example, speedier reaction times) and complex problem-solving tasks (like creative brainstorming).

Students: “How exercise improves my academics”

Better memory  
“I get rid of other things on my mind when I exercise so that once it comes time to do work, I’m able to sit and focus. The end result is better memory.”
—Marygrace F., fifth-year graduate student, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York

Improved problem solving 
“While exercising, I find that some of the roadblocks I’ve been dealing with in school/work are more easily solved. I’ve taken a step back and focused on something else and gained a fresher perspective.”
—Matt E., second-year graduate student, University of North Dakota

Higher grades
“Whenever I’ve exercised after studying I’ve seemed to do better on the exam or paper.”
—Layla G., third-year student, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

More productive
“I began running during my lunch hours and since have experienced increased productivity in the afternoons. This time of day was previously my least productive.”
—Nikki H., first-year graduate student, Boise State University, Idaho

More motivated
“When I can’t stay focused on my homework, or when I don’t feel like studying, going to the gym to workout is always a motivation booster.”
—Callixte N., first-year graduate student, University of North Dakota

For the biggest brain boost, go aerobic and get coordinated

The improvements in mental performance come from aerobic activity. That’s any workout that makes us breathless or sweaty, like running, cycling, basketball, or dance.

The brain boost is bigger when we’re doing complicated aerobic activities that require coordination, rhythm, strategy, and concentration, like playing tennis or taking a dance class.

Q&A: “How much cardio will help my brain?”

How hard to I need to work it?

You don’t have to exercise to the point of exhaustion, but you do need a little vigor. The brain benefits seem to be “in proportion with the intensity of the activity,” said
Dr. Justin Rhodes, a psychologist at the University of Illinois who researches the effects of physical activity on the brain. “If you walk sluggishly, you get a little benefit. If you run, you get more.” (Quoted on the University of Illinois website). 

Activities involving motor coordination (like dance) or strategy (like a team sport) are especially beneficial for the brain. “You’re challenging your brain even more when you have to think about coordination. Like muscles, you have to stress your brain cells to get them to grow,” says Dr. Ratey. 

In most studies, participants exercised for 20–60 minutes. The effects of exercise may depend on how we work out and for how long. It’s not clear yet whether other forms of exercise, such as strength and flexibility training, also help us think more clearly or creatively.

Could exercise ever make me too tired to think straight?
Eventually, yes. When we work out to the point of dehydration, our cognitive function declines. Being so physiologically depleted compromises our speed of information processing and memory, according to Acta Psychologica (2003). In other words, it was wise of you not to run a half-marathon the morning of your presentation.

Does my fitness level make a difference?

Several studies suggest that people who are routinely active and physically fit may experience a bigger brain boost from exercise than sedentary people do, according to Acta Psychologica (2003).

Some brain effects may also be bigger for those who are experienced in sports that require rapid responses and decision making. For example, in one study, participants with fencing experience had the strongest performance improvements (e.g., quicker reaction time).

“Sports seem to help with focus and alertness.”
—Name withheld, second-year student, Nova Scotia Community College

“I started doing yoga and Pilates. Besides feeling better, I was able to remember more and study better. I was very excited on my overall change. It was great.”
—SuEllen E., fourth-year graduate student, Metropolitan State University of Denver

“Group workout classes and going for runs give me more energy during the day; I can focus on my work for longer periods of time and sleep better at night.”
—Kayla G., doctoral student, University of Miami

It works for mice too. Check this out.

Researchers compared the IQ gains of mice in four different living environments. Some had a running wheel; some had toys and highly flavored foods, with or without a running wheel; others had boring cages and dull diets.

Several months in, the mice that exercised had healthier brains and did better on cognitive tests than the sedentary mice—even the ones that had other sources of stimulation.

For mouse brainpower, “Only one thing had mattered, and that’s whether they had a running wheel,” said Dr. Justin Rhodes of the University of Illinois (speaking to the New York Times).

Smart moves

How to use exercise to raise your grades

  • Incorporate aerobic (cardiovascular) activity into your regular schedule
  • Try an activity that combines aerobic exercise with coordination or strategy, such as dance or a team sport
  • For a quick brain break, do several minutes of jumping jacks, pushups, burpees, and other moves that get your heart pumping—or take a short walk or hit the stairs
  • Circuit workouts will boost your brainpower while you work on strength or flexibility too
  • If you’re physically fit, try high-intensity interval training (HIIT)

The following examples are methods that researchers have used in studies. Brain benefits are not exclusive to these activities. Try various forms of cardio and see what works for you.

For new ideas and a fresh perspective, take a walk

We think more creatively while walking than when we are sitting, according to a 2014 study involving students. Walking helps with tasks requiring “a fresh perspective or new ideas,” according to researchers who published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. Walking works outdoors or on a treadmill.

For brainstorming, get a half-hour of moderate cardio

In a 2005 study, 60 college students got 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise. They followed that with creativity tests measuring their brainstorming skills. The brain boost was effective for at least two hours after exercising. (Creativity Research Journal).

For creative thinking and problem solving—dance!

Twenty-one women took a 20-minute dance class, and 16 did not, before undergoing three tests measuring their creative thinking and problem-solving skills. In the study, the women who had danced scored higher on all three tests than the women who hadn’t, Acta Psychologica reported (2003).

For improved focus: Dance, play a team sport, or do a martial art

In a 2008 study, 150 teens were assigned to either a 10-minute activity involving more complicated, coordinated exercise or to a regular sports lesson. Afterward, the teens who had been engaged in coordinated exercise had bigger improvements on a test of attention and concentration than the others, according to Neuroscience Letters.

For better memory, work out strenuously

In a 2011 study, sedentary male students took a memory test. Then half of them rode a stationary bike, revving up the pace until they were exhausted, and the others were inactive. When they retook the test, the students who had exercised improved on their scores while the rested students did not, according to Physiology & Behavior.

Students: “How these workouts worked for me”

“A long walk makes me feel refreshed and more alert; better able to focus on studies; less groggy; a nice break.”
—Shawn F., second-year online student, Fort Hays State University, Kansas

“Dancing—I can move around and gain a fresh perspective. I am able to regain focus and get more done.”
—Ashley S., fifth-year student, University of Alaska Anchorage

“Long-distance running is helpful for planning out a dissertation.”
—Steve P., doctoral student, Hofstra University, New York

“Going to the gym improves my sleeping and mood, which then improves my ability to stay focused and awake for school work.”
—Ashley R., first-year student, Nova Scotia Community College

“I felt blocked when trying to write a paper, so I went for a walk. When I came back, I was able to go back to it with a clear mind.”
—Jesykah B., second-year online student, Nova Scotia Community College

“I am more focused after exercise. I think more clearly and work faster.”
—Name withheld, first-year graduate student, University of Kansas

“Basketball and weight lifting help me with focusing and getting ‘in the zone.’ This enhances my ability to maintain my attention and strive to succeed. Basketball, since it is a team sport, helps my ability to adapt and communicate with others toward [the goal of] winning the game.”
—Anthony V., fourth-year student, California State University, Northridge

“Walking helps me think about and observe objects of importance. It also clears my head.”
—Carmel H., third-year online student, University of New Brunswick College of Extended Learning

Five ways physical activity boosts our brain

Exercise sends blood to the brain

Physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, delivering extra oxygen and generating more energy. “When our ancestors worked up a sweat, they were probably fleeing a predator or chasing their next meal. During such emergencies, extra blood flow to the brain could have helped them react quickly and cleverly to an impending threat or kill prey that was critical to their survival,” writes Dr. Rhodes in Scientific American.

“Physical activity will make the blood circulation good, [which brings] mental improvements as well.”
—Rabindra K., second-year graduate student, University of Massachusetts

Cardio boosts brain growth

Physical activity activates the hippocampus, a brain region involved in learning and memory. It increases our levels of brain chemicals called growth factors. These help stimulate new brain cell growth and build strong connections between those cells. The hippocampus is larger in people who exercise regularly than in people who don’t, research shows.

Perhaps most importantly, physical activity raises our levels of a protein known as BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). “The one factor that shows the fastest, most consistent and greatest response [to exercise] is BDNF. It seems to be key to maintaining not just memory but skilled task performance,” says Dr. Ahmad Salehi, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, California (talking to the New York Times).

“Cardiovascular exercise seems to stimulate brain function and increases my energy level, which makes me more alert and receptive to learning.”
—David M., third-year online student, University of North Dakota

Exercise acts like medication

Physical activity influences the same neurotransmitters that are targeted by antidepressant and ADHD medication, says Dr. Ratey, a neuropsychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. This is why a workout “is akin to taking a mix of Prozac and Ritalin.” Among these effects, exercise helps us visually pick out relevant information from a confusing or chaotic scene, according to Acta Psychologica (2003).

“Whenever I can’t focus on a topic, I will indulge myself in extracurricular activities and it really helps me!”
—Sandeep R. P., first-year graduate student, University of Maryland, College Park

“If my mind is scattered or I’m overwhelmed with too many projects, going for a brief fast-paced jog helps me have better mental clarity when I go back to my tasks.”
—Elise B., third-year stuent, Berklee College of Music, Massachusetts

“In the mornings I participate in spinning class at my university and it seems to help me focus during the rest of my classes. Even though I am sometimes physically tired, I am mentally alert.”
—Katie N., third-year student, University of Maryland, College Park

Cardio regulates energy and sleep

Physical activity regulates our sleep and our energy through the day. In studies involving students, lower GPAs are associated with irregular sleep patterns, later bedtimes, and later wake-up times. Some evidence suggests that memory formation may be prompted by deep sleep and then consolidated by REM sleep, helping to explain why we need the sequential stages of the sleep cycle.

“Playing soccer or any other games during the afternoon hours that involve physical activity ensure sound sleep. And if I have a sound sleep, it increases my intellectual performance.”
—Name withheld, graduate student, Florida International University

“Physical activity is a natural stress reliever. And having peaceful sleep at night after working out causes better focus on work the next day. My sleep quality has improved tremendously after my physical activity increased.”
—Ekanth R., second-year graduate student, Michigan Technological University

Physical activity relieves stress and improves mood

Working out alleviates our stress and anxiety, which are barriers to clear thinking. In addition, exercise lifts our mood, so we are more likely to feel energized and confident enough to tackle the topics we find difficult.

“When I’m stressed I go on really long mountain-bike rides. They leave me exhausted and make it easier to focus on what’s important.”
—John K., first-year student, Colorado School of Mines

“I dance, jog, or hang out with friends whenever I feel stressed or not in the mood to study. This refreshes my mind and boosts up my interest to get back to work.”
—Meenakshi S., recent online graduate, New Jersey Institute of Technology

“Swimming puts me in the moment and helps shake off stress.”
—Schuyler W., fourth-year graduate student, University of California, Los Angeles

“I participate in running and group fitness classes. They reduce my stress, which allows me to better focus on the tasks at hand.”
—Rochelle P., second-year graduate student, University of New Mexico

“By reducing stress, physical activity has made my mental functioning sharper when participating in cognitive activities, and I am more capable of processing and remembering information.”
—Amy C., graduate student, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

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Sonoma State University, California

“Cycling! Getting your heart pumping and blood flowing on the way up, and the rush and danger of coming down, make the mind and body better connected. I always feel better after a ride and feel like I could take on anything!”

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Lucy Berrington is a health writer, editor, and communications manager. Her work has been published in numerous publications in the US and UK. She has an MS in health communication from Tufts University School of Medicine, Massachusetts, and a BA from the University of Oxford, UK.