1. Exercise has been shown to improve mental tasks so significantly that one study showed that it improved children's math score by one whole grade (e.g. from a B to an A).
2. This improvement in cognitive ability is associated with structural changes in the brain. Research has shown that individuals who exercise regularly have an increase in regions of the brain responsible for attention control, cognitive control, and response resolution.
3. Exercise increases the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the brain. So exercise within 60 minutes of an important test, meeting, or presentation to improve performance.
There has been some fascinating research that shows that your brain functions better after you have activated it with exercise. Dr. Art Kramer’s lab showed that children who did aerobic exercise for 20 minutes before writing math tests improved their scores and that the children who did exercise regularly had different brain structures than those that were less active. The regions of the brain that had larger volumes in the exercise group were related to attention control, cognitive control and, response resolution. These are all centres of the brain that help in maintaining attention and the ability to coordinate actions and thoughts crisply. These results were confirmed in young adults, so it’s not just children that benefit from exercise before mental tasks.
Another study by Dr. Josie Booth from Dundee University of 5000 children in the UK found that 15 minutes of exercise improved performance in math by about a quarter of a grade and that the increments in performance continued right up to 60 minutes, meaning it is possible to boost academic performance by a full grade (i.e. from a B to an A).
Harvard psychiatrist Dr. John Ratey explains this concept in his book “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain”. He says, “Physical activity sparks biological changes that encourage brain cells to bind to one another. The more neuroscientists discover about this process, the clearer it becomes that exercise provides an unparalleled stimulus, creating an environment in which the brain is ready, willing, and able to learn.”
So if you have mental tasks to do during the day, if your job involves thinking, or if you’re a student looking to bio-hack your way to better grades, then you need to do some exercise before your mental task to supercharge your brain and improve your performance. If you do the exercise regularly you’ll change your brain to make it better at doing cognitive tasks. Imagine that you can do better at calculus without actually doing more calculus homework! I wish I would have known that in Grade 12…
Today's POWER-UP: Move strategically
Exercise primes the brain for mental performance. If you have an important thinking-related task to do during the day – for example, a presentation, a major meeting or an exam – try to take a few minutes to do some light exercise before the event.
Go for a walk before that presentation. Do a few flights of stairs before you present. If you need to solve a problem block off some time to get focused and make sure that you walk, stretch, or lift some weights in the hour before you settle in to work on the challenge.
Exercise will increase the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the brain and improve your mental performance. It might seem like you’re taking too much time away from the task but the physiological science says that you’ll perform better and get healthier at the same time.
Dive Deeper: Check out this TEDx video on the effects of exercise on cognition.