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Get Moving to Smarten Up: How Exercise Improves Your Memory & Cognition

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Author:  Dr. Lowell Greib ND, CISSN & Dr. Melanie Reidl ND

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Get Moving to Smarten Up: How Exercise Improves Your Memory & Cognition

It has been well established that exercise benefits the body; it improves the function of your heart, makes your bones stronger, and helps you maintain a healthy body weight. But are you aware that physical activity strengthens the mind?

Reports from numerous studies have found that exercise can increase the speed at which you learn new things, improve your memory, and increase your attention span. Exercise enhances learning by increasing alertness, attention, and motivation. It also promotes the growth of new brain cells, especially in the brain’s memory centre, so that you can learn faster and remember things.

Neuroscience research has established a biochemical link between exercise and cognitive function: exercise increases levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a chemical that supports the growth and function of nerve cells in the brain. The brain’s memory centre concentrates higher amounts of BDNF, which is responsible for improving your memory and learning abilities.

It has been found that moderate to high intensity aerobic exercise immediately increases BDNF and results in enhanced learning post-exercise. A recent study demonstrated that individuals learned vocabulary words 20 percent faster following exercise than they did before exercise, and that the rate of learning correlated directly to increases in BDNF. It has also been found that three months of endurance exercise training increases resting levels of BDNF following training. Therefore, a sustained rise in BDNF may require several months of endurance exercise training.

Before you rush to the gym to get your brain primed for a study session or learning a new activity, it is important to understand how to effectively use exercise to sharpen your mind. Because we know that BDNF levels in the brain increase when we do moderate to high intensity cardiovascular exercise, it is important to monitor the type and intensity of exercise you engage in. Moderate to high intensity cardiovascular exercise has been reached when you are cracking a sweat, your heart rate is high, and you are no longer able to carry on a conversation with a workout partner. Power walking, jogging, biking, swimming, and various sports can take you to this level of intensity. Anything less than this intensity, and you are likely not producing adequate BDNF in order to derive the brain benefits.

It is worth noting that the ability to learn difficult material declines while exercising at a high intensity, because blood is directed away from the areas of the brain involved in learning pathways. However, almost immediately post-exercise, blood flow is redirected to these areas, which enhances learning and problem-solving abilities. This means that you should not attempt to learn new material while exercising. On the other hand, you should develop a habit of scheduling study sessions after workouts that get your heart pumping, since you will have the capacity to absorb more information in a shorter amount of time.

These principles of exercise and learning can be applied to your kids to optimize their attention, learning, and memory at school and at home. Have your kids get up 20 minutes earlier and have them be active before the school bell rings; this could take the form of a short morning jog, or a bike ride to school instead of getting a drive. This simple change in routine will enhance your kids’ learning over the course of the school day.  It would also be beneficial to have your kids engage in sports or another form of aerobic exercise after school, so that doing homework and studying in the evenings at home is more productive.

It’s not much of a ‘stretch’ then, to say that if you’re a regular exerciser, you may be brighter than your couch potato friend. So get moving and smarten up!

Lowell Greib ND is head of TheSport Lab in Huntsville, ON.  For more information on Lowell Greib,ND visit

 Melanie Reidl ND is practicing in Waterloo, ON. For more information visit 


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