Why Being a Meathead Makes you Smarter (And Keeps You Smarter for Longer)

By Dr. Spencer Nadolsky and Kurtis Frank 

Everyone gets old. As people age, their risk for several health problems goes up. One of these, often treated as inevitable, is cognitive decline. But studies show, people who exercise consistently stay healthier, mentally and physically, compared to people that don’t. It’s never too late to start, either.

How does it work?

Exercise keeps your brain healthy by …

  • Preserving and improving blood flow to the brain.
  • Reducing triglyceride and glucose levels, high levels of which can affect brain health.
  • Causing growth in brain tissues.

Preserving Blood Flow

There are multiple forms of dementia, with the most common causes being Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. While these vary in their causes, one thing that is for sure is that exercise seems be protective and helpful in both. Why is this? There are multiple reasons but keeping blood flow adequate is one of them.

That’s where exercise comes in. Cardio and resistance training reduce blood pressure, especially when done daily. Having high blood pressure is a risk factor for decreased blood flow in the brain and ultimately dementia (remember there are a few forms of dementia). According to preliminary evidence, isometric resistance training may be the most therapeutic exercise for reducing blood pressure but all types help - especially pumping iron.

Ensuring adequate blood and oxygen flow to the brain will allow the brain to use its preferred energy source: glucose. While neurons can use other fuel sources like ketones and lactate, glucose allows the brain to function optimally.

Type II diabetes and metabolic syndrome are associated with reduced blood flow in the brain. There is also a significant link between type II diabetes (and other issues with glucose metabolism) and Alzheimer’s. This makes exercise a great way to prevent a variety of health issues. Even in those already with dementia, exercise improves cognition. Exercise is like a potent drug used for all sorts of chronic disease.

Lowering Disease Risk

Many diseases caused by poor lifestyle choices, like diabetes and hypertension, are associated with reduced cognition and a generally faster cognitive decline, especially during old age. Elevated levels of certain compounds in the blood (serum biomarkers), like triglycerides, are also correlated with cognitive decline likely due to the relationship of insulin resistance. Bringing down high levels of these biomarkers decreases the risk of cognitive diseases.

Exercise is able to help at any stage of a cognitive disease. Even if exercise is unable to prevent the disease from manifesting, it will still deter further cognitive impairment, and prevent the condition from worsening.

Brain Growth Factors

Exercise, particularly cardio, is also able to induce various growth factors, including nerve growth factor (NGF) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), both of which protect neurons and help nerves ‘branch out’ to other nerves. Improving communication between neurons improves cognition.

BDNF can be released when the brain is threatened with low oxygen, a condition called hypoxia. Strength training that stresses the cardiovascular system, as well as other intense exercises, spikes BDNF levels. Daily exercise is key to protecting your brain from low-oxygen conditions by letting it ‘practice’ during exercise. Keep in mind, if you’re lifting but not actually stressing your cardiovascular system, BDNF levels will remain unchanged.

There’s even a supplementation option. Bacopa monnieri is an herb that, when supplemented, can promote memory formation and BDNF levels, even in non-elderly people. This evidence suggests that increasing BDNF activity improves cognition.

Increasing BDNF levels, by spiking it and improving the brain’s responsiveness to it, leads to better memory formation and cognitive enhancement. The best way to do that is through exercise that stresses the cardiovascular system.

So get moving!

Whether you’re doing hill sprints or squatting so heavy you’re sneaking breathing rests with the bar on your back, exercise that taxes your cardio will do way more than just keep your body healthy. Frequent exercise will not only make you smarter (would be nice to have an easier time remembering those flashcards, right?) but it’ll protect your brain throughout your life.

The sooner you get starter, the better!


Dr. Spencer Nadolsky and Kurtis Frank are part of Examine.com, an independent website that looks at evidence behind supplementation and nutrition. They are your best source for unbiased and neutral information.

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