Will I become smarter by exercising?

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You have probably heard the saying, 'A healthy mind lives in a healthy body,' or some variation of it.

It is no secret that regular exercise improves gut health, speeds up metabolism, and does in fact help your body release endorphins, adrenaline, and dopamine, increasing your mental health in the process. But can you grow brain cells from physical activity? What age groups are most likely to benefit from regular exercise? And does any physical activity do the trick or can you draw mental benefits from specific exercise only? Let's find out!

a woman doing yoga outside in front of a sunset

Does sport make you smarter?

In an intelligence study conducted at Florida Coast University, 60 students were divided into two groups: 'thinkers' and 'non-thinkers.' The students were observed for seven days. Now, here's the thing: The less athletically active students exerted themselves in learning and were more mentally active.

But can we conclude from this that exercise has no effect on intelligence?

On the contrary – several studies demonstrate that playing sports improves oxygen uptake in the brain, promotes brain blood flow, and increases brain plasticity. In addition, it has been shown that blood flow to the brain increases by about 20 percent during normal walking and by as much as 30 percent during moderate exercise, which has an influence on a wide variety of neurotransmitters. From this, it can be concluded that sport does indeed improve the brain's performance, making a person smarter.

Also, a Swedish study of 1.2 million young men found a clear correlation between good physical fitness and higher intelligence test scores. A further evaluation showed that the young men who were fit, more often completed their educations and/or worked in professions requiring higher qualifications.

Other studies have also proved this connection between sport and mental performance for both children and older people.

Can you grow new brain cells?

Yes! While exercise boosts mood it can also boost your brain cell growth. Physical activity usually helps your brain preserve healthy brain cells but it can do much more and this is not limited to young people. New brain cells can be developed throughout your entire life! The process is called neurogenesis.

Scientists at Harvard Medical School have found that it is indeed possible to create new neurons to effectively improve memory and thinking skills. How much exercise you need depends, but it at the very least helps prevent signs of aging like memory trouble.

This means you are not stuck with the number of brain cells you already possess, and you can improve the function of those existing brain cells as well!

But how do you do that?

Which sports are best for concentration?

Sports physiologists cite a lack of fitness, among other things, as a major cause of the inability to concentrate.

The bottom line is that all sports that involve exercise and improve fitness help promote concentration, as well as thinking, learning, and memory. To really boost brain power, lots of people swear by aerobic exercise! This has everything to do with a little molecule called irisin, which is produced during endurance exercise.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School have found irisin to be a byproduct of a chain reaction that, when released, activates areas in our brain related to learning and memory. So if you combine regular aerobic exercise with your studying schedule, you can improve your brain function during those times, thus increasing your efficiency. Two birds with one stone. You can also try riding a stationary bike or running on a treadmill while reading if you don't want to go outside and save some time.

Looking for a less exciting alternative?

Sports that particularly increase concentration include yoga, tai chi, qigong, taijiquan, archery, darts, golf, and dancing. The focus needed to, for example, hit the bull's eye with an arrow, is the same basic brain function needed to successfully take in information while working or studying for an exam.

three people shooting a bow and arrow at a practice target

So, there you go - or run! Book an aerobic exercise class, lift weights, get a stationary bike or simply hit the gym, and see how fast your brain health improves!

How are attention and exercise related?

It has been clearly proven that exercise increases attention and concentration.

If the nerve cells in your brain are sufficiently active, you can pay attention. To activate those cells, you need sensory stimuli and an active metabolism, which are promoted by movement (exercise).

According to the theory of evolution, the human nervous system evolved to make movement possible. And the converse is equally true – that is, movement is good for our cognitive performance.

It also helps you to improve your sleep habits which in turn will help you focus during the day.

Can regular exercise help with my mental health?

Yes, the effects of exercise are connected to our mental health as well. Did you know your body needs you to literally run away from your problems?

The stress hormone cortisol increases when you suffer a panic attack or even worry just a bit. It prepares you to run from the danger. But nowadays most stressful situations cannot be outrun, and so we remain where we are wondering why we cannot calm down. The human brain still thinks the danger is imminent since we haven't moved an inch.

That means: Run! Exercise tricks your brain into thinking you have run away from danger, and simultaneously releases endorphins and serotonin, making you happier in the process. You can run or do aerobic exercise as recommended above. But any cardio will do!

In truth, exercise is often overlooked as a mitigation of the effects of mental health issues. Running and cycling or even just dancing in the kitchen to your favorite song can have a significant impact on your mental health and should be part of your daily routine. A healthy lifestyle therefore cannot only promote brain cell growth, making you smarter, it also makes you happier.

Are intelligent people more successful?

The correlation between intelligence and professional success has been investigated in many studies and meta-studies. The findings consistently show a high positive correlation between the two.

All other abilities being equal, highly intelligent people solve mental tasks better than those with lower intelligence. Studies have shown a strong correlation between the results of intelligence tests in children and their success in school, and eventually at university.

iq plus eq = success written in chalk surrounded by heads

It goes without saying that factors other than intelligence are important for success in school or college. Perseverance is one example. You can be highly intelligent, but if you do not apply yourself, you will likely not succeed.

It stands to reason that even intelligent people can fail in their studies and that intelligence is only one of many requirements needed for successful study. But ultimately, neither perseverance nor any other positive characteristic can completely make up for a lack of intelligence.

What about the relationship between intelligence and success in real life? Obviously, the negative statement that a low IQ usually leads to only limited success is more valid than the positive statement that a high IQ always leads to a successful life. Again, a high IQ is more likely to be considered necessary, even though success undoubtedly also depends on factors such as perseverance, luck, chance, relationships, social background, etc.

If one equates income with success, a positive correlation between a person’s IQ and high income could be also demonstrated.

How can I help my child become more intelligent?

a little girl reading a book in a sunlight room

We read earlier that intelligence rises sharply before age 12, continues to rise until age 15, then remains at that level for a few years. Between the ages of 20 and 30, a slight decline begins. The lower the IQ reached by age 30, the greater the decline after that age.

We also read that gaining intelligence depends both on one’s heredity and their environmental conditions. Since heredity is already set, the environment is the decisive factor in increasing a child's intelligence. Many studies have shown that children's intelligence levels are determined by their social class. Children from higher classes tend to have higher intelligence than children from lower classes. Linguistic intelligence is also strongly socially determined.

Studies of identical twins have shown that education and teaching play a significant role in the development of intelligence.

Four ways to increase your child's intelligence:

The above-average intelligence that world-famous mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss developed in childhood was due not only to heredity, but also to social affiliation, education, and teaching.

Favorable environmental influences enabled the young Gauss to creatively apply his general intelligence and a special talent for mathematics. Accordingly, learning opportunities and the development of a base of knowledge increase the likelihood of creative achievement and ultimately, result in high intelligence.

So how do you boost your child’s intelligence?

First and foremost, providing a loving environment will help a child develop the emotional security he or she needs to thrive.

Other areas where you can help boost your child’s intelligence level include:


Language is the basis for understanding complicated issues and for forming thoughts. You can help your child develop language skills by reading aloud to him or her, then discussing what you read. When children are older, it is important to encourage them to read independently. It has been shown that in households where much reading material was available, children's linguistic competence was higher than in households that had only a few books. Also, through reading, children learn to concentrate.

Early socialization

Early contact with children of the same age promotes a child’s cognitive processes. Through joint play, children can try things and share interests. It has been shown that children who attend preschool, where they spend time with children of the same age, score several points higher on intelligence tests.

Proper praise

Praise has an indirect effect on the development of intelligence because it increases a child’s motivation to learn. Note, though, that praise should only be given for specific achievements. General or exaggerated praise is harmful because it gives a child the impression that he or she does not have to do anything to be praised.


By listening to your child and showing that you hear what he or she says, you express respect for him or her. In return, your child learns to listen respectfully.

Can I increase intelligence through learning?

students sitting in a large studyhall at an old university

Yes, you can increase your intelligence through learning. At the same time, learning should also be challenging. We can compare this with sports. You can increase your athletic performance, but only if you train hard. The same applies to learning.

In general, most people like to learn, whether out of curiosity or to become more competent and to develop new skills and abilities. Learning works particularly well when a person sets his or her own goals because he or she is prepared to work harder to achieve them.

It is important to teach children that they are learning for themselves, not for a teacher or their parents. Children who develop the ambition to achieve goals through learning also increase their intelligence.

Who is more intelligent? Men or women?

This question cannot be answered in a general sense. Studies have shown that the intelligence of men and women is different. Men tend to do better at logical-mathematical tasks and spatial awareness, while women have been shown to be more linguistically competent than men. Among other things, this is the result of environmental influences, especially education.

Traditionally, boys have tended to be more interested in technology and mathematics, finding them more useful than girls generally have. Girls have tended to believe, correctly or not, that they are not well-suited for roles in technology and mathematics. But this is the result of stigmatization rather than an actual question of competence. Even today, it is hard for a young female student to feel accepted by and connect with male IT students, for example. Especially when she does better than her peers.

Let's look at the numbers:

According to UIS data, less than 30% of researchers are women. They get published less and paid less, further discouraging them to start a career in STEM fields.

But that did not stop these women who went on to achieve greatness in STEM:

  1. Alice Bell (developed a ground-breaking treatment for leprosy)
  2. Dorothy Hodgkin (won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry "for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances.")
  3. Maria Winkelmann (astronomist and first woman to discover a comet in 1902, whose work was published by her husband under his name),

to name only a few women in STEM you probably hadn't heard of before.

But things began to change after the end of the Cold War and are still changing today. For example, when we look at women we see that more and more girls became interested in mathematical-technical professions, and many successfully completed mathematical, scientific and technical courses of study.

The only thing we can say for sure is, that while male and female brains make work differently to an extent due to environmental conditioning and evolution, we do possess the same level of intelligence. The average IQ nowadays is still a hundred, no matter which gender is being tested.

Has IQ really been falling since 1995?

a graph of the average human intelligence

For decades, the average IQ grew steadily. This was proven by the scientific researcher James Flynn, author of the well-known Flynn Effect. The increase averaged 0.3 points per year, which added up to a whopping 30-point increase over 100 years. People who 100 years earlier had 130-point IQs and were considered highly gifted, would in the modern era have IQs of 100 - just average.

Among other things, higher-quality, longer-term education, and improved nutrition and medical care are cited as reasons for this increase in intelligence scores.

A few years ago, scientists claim to have found that the IQ score increase documented by Flynn has stagnated and even reversed course slightly. In Germany, it has been determined that while verbal intelligence is increasing slightly, spatial awareness is decreasing. And in Norway, Finland, and Estonia, a drop in average IQ was even found.

Norway’s results are especially reliable because extensive testing has been carried out there over decades. The theory for the drop is that Norwegians’ ability to summarize, or abstract, has become less well-developed. There is now much discussion and speculation about the causes of this reverse Flynn effect. Increased internet use and the associated flood of stimuli, which increasingly distracts people from their own thoughts, is thought to be one cause. At the same time, young people and children are decreasingly less able to focus on tasks.

Another possible reason for the decrease is thought to be our increased reliance on technology to solve problems, such as satellite navigation. When we use technology, we are not required to solve problems ourselves. Environmental influences are also cited as a cause of decreasing IQs. In Germany, for example, the quality of education has been deteriorating for some time. As a university lecturer, I have observed since 1995 that the mathematical skills of the average first-year student have been declining year by year.

Another cause of decreasing IQ seems to be the increase in specialization being found both in education and later in professional work. The result is that fewer people develop a diverse array of skills or become what is known as “generalists”. We should at least ask whether this is a good thing in the long run.

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