The Single Most Proven Way to Get Smarter and Happier

7 minute read

Yes, It’s This Simple

Many of the fixes for our problems aren’t complex — something that’s clear in the things I recommend people do every day.

What’s a scientifically validated way to get smarter, happier, healthier and calmer?

Stop reading this right now and go for a walk.

It’s that simple.

Here’s why.

Exercise Powers the Body — and the Mind

They used to say you don’t grow new brain cells. They were wrong.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

As an illustration of just how new this territory is, I’ll go back to the story of neurogenesis, the once-heretical theory that the brain grows new nerve cells throughout life. “Ten years ago people weren’t even convinced that it happened,” says neurologist Scott Small. It was at his Columbia University lab, in 2007, where they witnessed telltale signs of neurogenesis for the first time in live humans. “Five years ago people said, OK, it might happen, but is it really meaningful? Now there isn’t a week that goes by where there’s not another study that shows neurogenesis has some kind of effect on the brain.”

What really feeds those baby brain cells? Hitting the gym.

A three-month exercise regimen increased blood flow to the part of your brain focused on memory and learning by 30%.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

In his study, Small put a group of volunteers on a three-month exercise regimen and then took pictures of their brains. By manipulating a standard MRI machine’s processing — essentially zooming in and cocking the shutter open — he captured images of the newly formed capillaries required for nascent neurons to survive. What he saw was that the capillary volume in the memory area of the hippocampus increased by 30 percent, a truly remarkable change.

The Dumb Jock Is a Myth

Being in good shape increases your ability to learn. After exercise, people pick up new vocabulary words 20% faster.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

“One of the prominent features of exercise, which is sometimes not appreciated in studies, is an improvement in the rate of learning, and I think that’s a really cool take-home message,” Cotman says. “Because it suggests that if you’re in good shape, you may be able to learn and function more efficiently.”

Indeed, in a 2007 study of humans, German researchers found that people learn vocabulary words 20% faster following exercise than they did before exercise, and that the rate of learning correlated directly with levels of BDNF.

Want to be more creative? Sweating for about a half hour on the treadmill notably increases cognitive flexibility.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

A notable experiment in 2007 showed that cognitive flexibility improves after just one thirty-five-minute treadmill session at either 60 percent or 70 percent of maximum heart rate … Cognitive flexibility is an important executive function that reflects our ability to shift thinking and to produce a steady flow of creative thoughts and answers as opposed to a regurgitation of the usual responses.

Fine, you can see differences on an MRI and with nerdy tests. Does it make a difference in the real world?


Office workers who exercised at lunch were more productive, less stressed and had more energy.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

In 2004 researchers at Leeds Metropolitan University in England found that workers who used their company’s gym were more productive and felt better able to handle their workloads. Most of the 210 participants in the study took an aerobics class at lunchtime, for forty-five minutes to an hour, but others lifted weights or practiced yoga for thirty minutes to an hour. They filled out questionnaires at the end of every workday about how well they interacted with colleagues, managed their time, and met deadlines. Some 65 percent fared better in all three categories on days they exercised. Overall, they felt better about their work and less stressed when they exercised. And they felt less fatigued in the afternoon, despite expending energy at lunchtime.

That super-productive co-worker who runs every day might not exercise because he has energy — he might have energy because he exercises.

While it might not make you the smartest person in the world, among the many ways to increase intelligence, exercise stands out.

Sweating Increases Smiling

Can’t make it simpler than this: Research from Duke University shows exercise is as effective as antidepressants in treating depression.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

In a landmark study affectionately called SMILE (Standard Medical Intervention and Long-term Exercise), James Blumenthal and his colleagues pitted exercise against the SSRI sertraline (Zoloft) in a sixteen-week trial … Blumenthal concluded that exercise was as effective as medication.

It also reduces anxiety.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

One interesting study in 2005 measured the physical and mental effects of exercise in a group of Chilean high school students for nine months … The experimental group’s anxiety scores dropped 14 percent versus a statistically insignificant 3 percent for the control group (an improvement that could be explained by the placebo effect).

What if you’re not depressed or anxious? Stay sedentary and you’re 1.5 times more likely to eventually become depressed.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

Researchers tracked 8,023 people for twenty-six years, surveying them about a number of factors related to lifestyle habits and healthiness starting in 1965. They checked back in with the participants in 1974 and in 1983. Of all the people with no signs of depression at the beginning, those who became inactive over the next nine years were 1.5 times more likely to have depression by 1983 than their active counterparts.

Still not convinced? People who exercise are, across the board, mentally healthier: less depression, anger, stress and distrust.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

A massive Dutch study of 19,288 twins and their families published in 2006 showed that exercisers are less anxious, less depressed, less neurotic, and also more socially outgoing. A Finnish study of 3,403 people in 1999 showed that those who exercise at least two to three times a week experience significantly less depression, anger, stress, and “cynical distrust” than those who exercise less or not at all.

O.K., O.K. — How Much Do I Need to Do?

What’s optimal? Exercise six days a week, 45 minutes to an hour per day.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

The best, however, based on everything I’ve read and seen, would be to do some form of aerobic activity six days a week, for forty-five minutes to an hour … In total, I’m talking about committing six hours a week to your brain. That works out to 5 percent of your waking hours.

Stop rolling your eyes. It’s not all or nothing.

Regarding body health and brain health, experts and neuroscientists agree: “A little is good, and more is better.”

Here’s something proved to make you smarter, healthier and happier. What could be a better investment of your time?

You might ask: If it’s obviously so great, why don’t we all do it?

Because habits and social influences are much more powerful than we think.

And, in general, we don’t do what makes us happy — we do what’s easy.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

What’s the best first step? Go here.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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