Workout Motivation: You’ll Boost Your IQ, Too

Exercise is good for your body—it’s a no-brainer, right? And speaking of brains, yours reaps the benefits of that workout too, new research confirms.

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

It’s true: Cardiorespiratory exercise—in other words, activity that gets your blood pumping—is associated with a healthy brain, according to a study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings. Specifically, cardiorespiratory fitness is linked to the health of regions of your brain related to cognitive decline and aging: gray matter and total brain volume.

The study measured cardiorespiratory fitness in 2,013 German adults and found that those with greater cardiorespiratory fitness (measured based on things like MRI scans and peak oxygen uptake) were more likely to have a greater volume of gray matter. And more gray matter is known to be associated with high levels of intelligence. The data suggest that cardiorespiratory exercise may help improve brain health and slow cognitive decline as you age.

“This provides indirect evidence that aerobic exercise can have a positive impact on cognitive function in addition to physical conditioning," said Ronald Petersen, M.D., Ph.D., a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic and author of an editorial accompanying the study. "Another important feature of the study is that these results may apply to older adults, as well. There is good evidence for the value of exercise in midlife, but it is encouraging that there can be positive effects on the brain later in life as well."

How to Get Fit for Your Brain

Again, cardiorespiratory exercise is basically any activity that gets your heart pumping (and it’s different for everyone). Here are some things to get hooked on:

  • Brisk walking

  • Running

  • Biking

  • Hiking

  • Swimming laps

  • Playing tennis

Find an activity you enjoy—you’re more likely to keep at it if you’re having fun. And how much should you aim for? Follow the recommendations from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which say to get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. You can spread it out in smaller chunks throughout the week to make it more manageable.

But having cardiorespiratory fitness isn’t all tied to exercise—there are other healthy habits you’ll need to adopt, too, according to Mayo Clinic experts. These include:

  • Not smoking. If you’re a smoker, take steps to quit ASAP. It’s no secret that it’s bad for your lungs, heart, and your whole body.

  • Eating healthy foods. Follow a heart-healthy diet, which focuses on whole grains, a variety of fruits and veggies, nuts and legumes, skinless poultry and fish, and low-fat dairy, while limiting saturated fat, sodium, red meat, and excess sugar, according to the American Heart Association.

  • Getting cholesterol and blood pressure under control. High levels of cholesterol and high blood pressure can up your risk of heart disease. Exercise and that heart-healthy diet can help you lower your levels, and your doctor may prescribe medication in some cases, per the Mayo Clinic.

  • Lowering your blood sugar. Over time, high blood sugar can harm your heart and other parts of your body.

  • Getting to a healthy weight level for you. Being overweight is associated with increased health risks as well—exercising and eating well are key to reaching a healthy weight.

  • Cardiorespiratory Fitness and Brain Health Study: Mayo Clinic Proceedings. (2020). “Cardiorespiratory Fitness and Gray Matter Volume in the Temporal, Frontal, and Cerebellar Regions in the General Population.”

  • Heart-Healthy Diet Information From the American Heart Association: The American Heart Association Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations. (2017). American Heart Association. heart.org

  • Mayo Clinic News Release on Study: Expert Alert: Keep exercising: New study finds it’s good for your brain’s gray matter. (2020). Mayo Clinic News Network.

  • Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans: Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition. (2018). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. health.gov

  • Tips to Lower Cholesterol: High cholesterol. (2019) Mayo Clinic.

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com.