How To Boost Brain Function With Exercise

Working out smart can make you, well, smarter

Nov 1, 2015
Outside Magazine
How To Boost Brain Function With Exercise

About 35 minutes of exercise can boost intellectual performance for up to two hours after. Illustration by Michael Hoeweler   

For years, study after study has shown that a good sweat improves brain function. But what’s the optimum dose? Only recently are scientists figuring out the proper prescription and timing necessary to achieve the biggest boost. Following new research out of Stanford University and the Mayo Clinic, companies like Google, Reebok, and the online-coaching platform TrainingPeaks are strategically using physical activity to make employees smarter and more productive. 

“They’re moving beyond just viewing exercise as something to keep their workforce healthy,” says John Ratey, a Harvard psychiatrist and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. “They realize it’s important for performance.” Try these four tips to get a bigger cognitive boost from your next workout. 

Rise and Shine

Train in the morning, says Ratey, right before you need to be your sharpest. Just 35 minutes of moderately intense running, rowing, or other aerobic exercise primes your brain for peak intellectual performance by balancing neurochemicals that contribute to cognitive functioning. While the benefits of morning exercise linger throughout the day, they are strongest in the 90 to 120 minutes following a workout.

Make it Complicated

Spend more time running trails, mountain biking, and playing tennis, says Ratey. Aerobic sports that require coordination, rhythm, and strategic thinking also promote neurogenesis, or the growth of new brain cells, making you smarter in the long haul. 


Combining brain and body tasks strengthens the anterior cingulate cortex, one part of the brain associated with perception of effort, making hard work feel easier, says Samuele Marcora, a physiologist at the University of Kent. The results are long lasting. After, say, repeatedly riding a bike trainer and reading a tricky book simultaneously, both the reading and the biking will seem easier when performed individually. 


A recent study from Stanford University found that just ten to fifteen minutes of brisk walking can make you significantly more creative—although researchers have yet to pin down the exact reason why. One hypothesis is that the coordination required for walking occupies the brain region responsible for linear thinking, freeing up capacity for creative insight. In fact, anything that gets your heart rate up will increase blood flow to the brain and can provide an uptick in cognition. Ratey suggests strategically timing these mini sessions for the afternoon; research shows that as the day wears on, mental energy gets depleted. 

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