Good News: Exercise Really Does Make You Smarter

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Lately, there have been loads of studies suggesting that exercise boosts brainpower in some form or another—it improves long-term memory; it increases the brain’s plasticity; it improves focus—but what these studies haven’t taken into account is the placebo effect. Could these post-exercise boosts in brainpower simply be the placebo effect at work? After all, we know that we’re exercising, and we’ve been told time and time again that exercising is good for our brains, so the placebo effect seems pretty plausible. Well, as The New York Times reports, a new study published in PLOS One took a look at just that and found that no, the improvement in post-exercise brain function is not all in our heads (well it is, but you know what I mean).

The study, performed by researchers at Florida State University in Tallahassee and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, tested whether the placebo effect was playing a part in people’s apparent boosts in brainpower after exercising by testing their expectations.

They split 171 individuals into two groups. One group was asked to guess how much a program of stretching and toning three times a week would improve memory, multi-tasking and other measures of thinking; the second group was asked to do the same but for a three-times-a-week walking regimen.

None of the participants claimed to be tuned in to the studies relating to exercise and the brain, so what they didn’t know was that stretching and toning programs have been shown to have little to no impact on cognitive function, whereas aerobic exercise, like walking, has been linked to boosted thinking power. The participants guessed the opposite: that stretching and toning would benefit the brain more than walking.

From this sample, the researchers can assume that when folks are being studied to measure the link between an aerobic exercise like walking and the brain, they are not actually expecting that walking will improve their brainpower and, therefore, there is no placebo effect. See what they did there? As the researchers explained to the Times, these results “suggest that the benefits of aerobic exercise are not a placebo effect.”

And, just in case your eyes glazed over during all that science talk, the takeaway is this: Even though it’s prime hibernate-and-watch-Netflix-for-six-months-straight season, you really should keep lacing up those workout sneakers, because exercise really is making you all kinds of smarter.

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