Why you actually Think Better when you Exercise.

Not convinced? Here’s some science.

So much is said about how exercise helps us ‘think better’.  The majority of experiments involve testing sedentary vs active people on some kind of problem-solving test and the active people always come out better.  There was an especially interesting piece where some scientists went to a primary school and doubled the frequency of one class’ Phys Ed lessons.  In about three months that class outperformed all the others on cognitive ability and learning performance.

But why does this actually happen?  It seems like there are a couple of scientific explanations.


Oxygen for performance

The first has to do with oxygen.  Our brains (well, all of our cells for that matter) work better with a greater delivery of oxygen via the blood.  Exercise helps to improve the delivery of oxygen through our blood vessels and this seems also to be true in the brain.  With the increased oxygen, our brain cells can function more efficiently.  So, exercise = better delivery of oxygen = better thinking.


Increased activation = increased activation

The second process might have to do with something that my friend was recently told about writing effectively.  This friend went to see a psychologist to work out how he could write faster.  In particular, he kept getting stuck searching for just the right word to put into a sentence.  The psychologist told him something he found strange – tap your pen.  Now, my friend thought this was a bit crazy but tried it out anyway.  Sure enough, he actually believes that it helps him come up with those elusive words faster.


There is plenty of research to suggest that the majority of our brain areas are heavily interconnected.  When we switch on one part, the stimulus can actually have a sort of ‘contagious’ effect that helps to increase the activity in other parts.  Hence when I switch on my motor cortex (by moving) other parts of my brain might get switched on to a greater extent than they otherwise would have.  This could be another vital role played by exercise.


We evolved ‘moving’

The final reason is based more on common sense evolution.  As our brains evolved, we were moving across the plains of Africa (depending on your evolutionary theory).  We were literally programmed to ‘think on the move’ as a nomadic species.  It wasn’t until much later that we began to colonise heavily.


So put these three things together and you might get the explanation as to why exercise is actually so good for our brain function.  Given that the 21st Century necessitates the ability to use our higher cognitive functions in order to thrive in the workplace, there has been no better time to get moving.

** Tony Wilson is a Workplace Performance Expert. His insights into performance science and its application in the workplace will make you re-think the way that you approach leadership, culture change, high performance and productivity. Tony has an MBA and a BSc majoring in physiology and delivers workshops and keynote presentations around the globe.