Does exercising your muscles also increase your intelligence like the daily mail (and many others) report:

Exercise makes you smarter 'by boosting energy levels in the brain


Now a team from the University of South Carolina have found that regular treadmill sessions also give a boost to the cell's powerhouses in the brain.

Research leader, Dr Mark Davis said this energy boost helped the brain to work faster and more efficiently.

  • I added the headline where the claim of making you smarter is actually made since the quoted part just infers the claim by the headline states it specifically.
    – Chad
    Commented Mar 19, 2012 at 14:20
  • 2
    Define "Smarter". Most people define "smarts" as the amount of knowledge and experience a person has acquired, in which case most treadmills don't teach you algebra. If you're talking about cognitive abilities - "Physical activity, and aerobic exercise in particular, enhances older adults' cognitive function" psychologicalscience.org/journals/pspi/pdf/…
    – Alain
    Commented Mar 19, 2012 at 15:29
  • @Alain Fluid intelligence.
    – Kit Sunde
    Commented Mar 19, 2012 at 16:53
  • ^ Tomato Tomäto
    – Alain
    Commented Mar 19, 2012 at 17:36
  • 1
    @einpoklum Most reliable sources appear to define smart/wise synonymously. In short "Intelligent" implies "fluid intelligence", "Smart"/"Wise" implies "crystallized intelligence". But please do check around and let me know if you find anything that suggests differently. You might also want to ask english.stackexchange.com and see what they say.
    – Alain
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 17:17

3 Answers 3


Based on the book "The Brain That Changes Itself" not the exercise itself, but the learning of new exercise, dance, activity, etc. is making your brain build new neuronal connection and even creates new neurons. It' not repeating of the same exercise, but learning of new ones makes you "smarter".

This theory, that novel environments may trigger neurogenesis, is consistent with Merzenich's discovery that in order to keep the brain fit, we must learn something new, rather than simply replaying already-mastered skills.

But walking is actually the activity which can make new neurons itself.

Gage's colleague Henriette van Praag showed that the most effective contributor to increased proliferation of new neurons was the running wheel. After a month on the wheel, the mice had doubled the number of new neurons in the hippocampus. Mice don't really run on running wheels, Gage told me; it only looks like they do, because the wheel provides so little resistance. Rather, they walk quickly. Gage's theory is that in a natural setting, long-term fast walking would take the animal into a new, different environment that would require new learning, sparking what he calls "anticipatory proliferation."

The study Running enhances neurogenesis, learning, and long-term potentiation in mice was done by Henriette van Praag, Ph.D. (all publications)

Running increases neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus, a brain structure that is important for memory function. ... Our results indicate that physical activity can regulate hippocampal neurogenesis, synaptic plasticity, and learning.

And one more: "Running enhances spatial pattern separation in mice."

Increasing evidence suggests that regular exercise improves brain health and promotes synaptic plasticity and hippocampal neurogenesis. Exercise improves learning, but specific mechanisms of information processing influenced by physical activity are unknown.


Like the answer by 4erkas, we can answer your question in terms of BDNF, neurogenesis, and neuroplasticity:

aerobic training may not improve baseline BDNF levels in healthy subjects (Griffin et al., 2011)

high levels of physical activity and aerobic fitness are negatively associated with basal sBDNF levels (Chan et al., 2008; Currie et al., [2009][3]; Gold et al., 2003; Nofuji et al., 2008; Rojas Vega et al., 2006).

Studies have shown that elevated stress, exogenous cortisol application, or glucocorticoid receptor agonism can lead to reduced BDNF levels (see Pluchino et al., 2013 for review).

In line with these findings, physiological markers of sedentary lifestyle have been associated with increased levels of plasma BDNF (Levinger et al., 2008).

from The Effects of Aerobic Exercise Intensity and Duration on Levels of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor in Healthy Men.


Yes, but not in and of itself (meaning, you don't just get "smarter" from exercise alone, it must be paired with learning activities).

What researchers have found, and schools have confirmed, in practice, is that vigorous exercise and the increased blood flow and other physiological effects that come with exercise make the brain more receptive to learning and better able to focus attention. Areas of the brain that are called upon to perform learning tasks are also stimulated by exercise.

Not so at Naperville Central High School west of Chicago. Here the kids who struggle with math and reading go to gym class first.

"What we're trying to do here is jump start their brain," says Paul Zientarski, chairman of the Physical Education Department at Naperville.

So the very first class of the day is physical education.

And at Naperville, exercise isn't confined to the gym. There are bikes and balls right in the classroom. Even in reading class, these kids are constantly on the move.

"Exercise, good fitness-based exercise, makes our brain more ready to learn," says John Ratey of the Harvard Medical School.

At the University of Illinois, Dr Charles Hillman's research shows that after a 30-minute stint on the treadmill, students actually do up to 10 percent better at provlem solving.

"It's good for attention, it's good for how fast individuals process information, and how they perform on cognitive tasks," says Hillman.

At Naperville, the test results are astounding.

Reading scores up nearly twice as much. Math scores up by a factor of 20.

ABC News - Bikes, Balls in Class: How Phys Ed Transformed One School

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .