Regular Exercise Increases Cognition

Cognition and exercise

Photo U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services

Two recent university studies have shown conclusively that regular and intermittently-intense exercise significantly increase cognitive abilities in humans.

The first study, from Iceland’s Reykjavik University School of Science and
Engineering, studied 46 healthy students with an average age of 23 years old.

The students were divided into two groups. One group rested and the other group was given an intense workout routine that increased in intensity and intermittently reached the “maximal heart rate.” Then they were tested for cognitive function afterwards and then assigned to the other group and re-tested.

Those students who exercised with intermittent intensity scored significantly higher on the cognitive tests, as compared to those students who had been resting.

However, this relationship only occurred among those students who were already physically active and regularly exercised. Those who did not exercise regularly outside of the testing did not show cognitive improvement following their exercise routines.

This relationship was confirmed by another study, this one from New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College. These researchers divided sedentary (people who didn’t regularly exercise before the study) subjects into four groups. The groups 1) underwent a four-week exercise program including the day of the test; 2) underwent the four-week exercise program but rested on the test day; 3) exercised only on test day; or 4) did not exercise at all during the four-week period including the test day.

The researchers found that only those who exercised for the four weeks plus the final day scored significantly better on their cognitive memory tests. The other three groups did not show any significant cognitive memory improvement over the four weeks. Those who exercised daily but not on test day did not show improvement, just as those who did not exercise daily but did on test day.

While other studies have shown a general relationship between exercise and cognitive improvement, these two studies suggest that exercise increases cognition assuming the person regularly maintains their exercise routine. Furthermore, a workout routine that intermittently increases in intensity provides the clearest cognitive boost.

In addition, exercise can significantly increase cognitive performance on a particular test or event, but only if the person regularly exercises and if the exercise was also performed on the day of the cognitive test.

Written by Case Adams, PhD


Budde H, Brunelli A, Machado S, Velasques B, Ribeiro P, Arias-Carrión O, Voelcker-Rehage C. Intermittent Maximal Exercise Improves Attentional Performance Only in Physically Active Students. Arch Med Res. 2012 Feb 27.

Hopkins ME, Caroline Davis F, Vantieghem MR, Whalen PJ, Bucci DJ. Differential Effects of Acute and Regular Physical Exercise on Cognition and Affect. Neuroscience. 2012 Apr 30.

Case Adams is a California Naturopath with a PhD in Natural Health Sciences, and Board Certified Alternative Medicine Practitioner. He has authored 26 books on natural healing strategies. “My journey into writing about alternative medicine began about 9:30 one evening after I finished with a patient at the clinic I practiced at over a decade ago. I had just spent the last two hours explaining how diet, sleep and other lifestyle choices create health problems and how changes in these, along with certain herbal medicines and other natural strategies can radically yet safely turn ones health around. As I drove home that night, I realized I needed to get this knowledge out to more people. So I began writing about health with a mission to reach those who desperately need this information. The strategies in my books and articles are backed by scientific evidence along with wisdom handed down through traditional medicines for thousands of years.” Case connects with the elements by surfing, hiking and being a beach bum.

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