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Aerobic exercise makes you smarter than weightlifting

September 18th, 2009

A nice post by Gretchen Reynolds at the NYT Well blog goes beyond the usual “exercise makes you smarter” to investigate what kind of exercise, exactly, boosts IQ most effectively. Key result from one study:

The students were noticeably quicker and more accurate on the retest after they ran compared with [lifting weights or sitting quietly], and they continued to perform better when tested after the cool down. “There seems to be something different about aerobic exercise,” Charles Hillman, an associate professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Illinois and an author of the study, says.

And a result from a more recent study:

[T]hey allowed one group of mice to run inside their rodent wheels, an activity most mice enjoy, while requiring the other group to push harder on minitreadmills at a speed and duration controlled by the scientists. They then tested both groups again to track their learning skills and memory. Both groups of mice performed admirably in the water maze, bettering their performances from the earlier trial. But only the treadmill runners were better in the avoidance task, a skill that, according to brain scientists, demands a more complicated cognitive response.

So, at first glance, it looks like aerobic exercise has the edge, and the harder the better. This jibes with a study I wrote about in July showing that aerobic exercise developed better blood vessels that got more oxygen to aging brains. On the other hand, if you push too hard during a marathon, your memory actually gets worse — temporarily.