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Almost Any Physical Activity Can Make You Smarter

Exercise boosts brain power. So can dancing, gardening, brisk walks — even housework.

Robert Roy Britt
8 min readMar 29, 2019


Yaakov Stern didn’t exercise when he was younger. But after years of studying the effects of aging on the brain, the 65-year-old Columbia University researcher has learned a few things about how exercise can improve thinking skills. As a professor of neuropsychology, Stern knew of many studies showing how regular aerobic exercise boosts brain power. But his latest research yielded two significant new findings.

In the study, 132 subjects from 20 to 67 years old who were not exercising were split into two groups. One did moderate aerobic exercise four times a week for six months, walking on a treadmill, cycling on a stationary bike or using an elliptical machine. The other group did just stretching and toning.

As in many previous studies, the exercising group improved their scores notably on tests that measured executive function, the ability to pay attention, organize and achieve goals. Also, an outer layer of their brains, called the left caudal middle frontal cortex, thickened, which is “usually taken to be a good sign” in relation to executive function, Stern said in an email.

That was no huge surprise. The more interesting thing was that improvements were seen across all age groups. And the effects were rather dramatic for the older individuals, when put into this context:

“The people who exercised were testing as if they were about 10 years younger at age 40 and about 20 years younger at age 60,” Stern said.

He and his colleagues detailed the findings in January in the online version of the journal Neurology.

The Best Medicine?

In addition to improving cognitive abilities — from executive function to memory — simply walking briskly 2.5 hours a week (figure 30 minutes each weekday) is known to improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels, increase energy and stamina, improve mood and mental well-being, and help you sleep better, according to the American Heart Association.

A growing body of research finds exercise is directly related to happiness, and likely is a cause. On the…



Robert Roy Britt

Editor of Aha! and Wise & Well on Medium + the Writer's Guide at Author of Make Sleep Your Superpower: