How to Lift Your Way to a Bigger, Smarter Brain

Gotta get those brains, bro!

Conventional wisdom — and that weird librarian from middle school — say reading books is the best way to become smarter. But new research shows that pumping iron can also bring about significant cognitive gains, and the more you exercise, the smarter you become.

While neurologists are still working to figure out exactly how this happens — and which types of exercise are optimal for improving brain functions — one theory seems to hold the answer. You see, physical activity has been shown to increase the production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). As another study explains, BDNF “plays an important role in neuronal survival and growth, serves as a neurotransmitter modulator, and participates in neuronal plasticity, which is essential for learning and memory.”

In simpler terms, we can essentially conclude, as many neuroscientists have, that exercise causes changes in the brain that improve your ability to learn and remember things. More recent studies support this idea, showing that exercise can actually increase the size of your hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with memory and learning.

So much like exercise transforms your muscles to make them stronger, it also does the same to your brain. Furthermore, that new research I mentioned up top shows that these effects can essentially stack on one another, meaning you could theoretically exercise until you have a mega-brain.

Jonathan Jordan, a group instructor at Equinox Fitness, says he sees this in his practice all the time. “It’s very common for me to hear from clients, when they stop working out consistently (at least two times a week) because of stress or demands at work or life, that they’re less able to tackle challenges, work tasks take them longer and they’re generally less productive than when they exercise regularly,” he explains. “So they stopped exercising because they ‘don’t have time,’ but the lack of exercise actually makes work take longer. They’re better served stepping away from work and getting in a quick workout to increase their brain power and output.” (Hear that, boss?)

As for which types of exercise are best for boosting your brain, once again, scientists are still working to figure that out, but we do have some clues. Jordan specifically points me toward this study, which found that “vigorous intensity (80 percent heart rate reserve), long duration (40 minutes) exercise offered the greatest probability of a significant BDNF elevation.”

Based on this study, Jordan recommends a mixture of high-intensity interval training and moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise, like riding on a stationary bike for 40 minutes, to achieve the biggest, buffest brain gains.

Jordan doesn’t recommend stopping there, either. “When exercise is paired with other activities known to improve brain function — proper sleep, better nutrition (such as eating more omega-3 fatty acids) and mindfulness activities, like meditation and diaphragmatic breathing — people become sexier, fitter and faster thinkers.”

All of which is to say, this better work, since I won’t have time to read even a single book after all this Goddamn exercise.