“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”

Friedriech Nietzche, Twilight of the Idols. (We’re pretty sure he meant the walking breaks in interval sessions, though.)

The myriad health benefits of an active lifestyle are well known, and probably motivate many runners’ first tentative steps into running. Interestingly, there is growing evidence that exercise is also good for the brain—right through life from childhood to old age.

In a 2009 review, it was found that exercise may increase children’s rates of learning[1]. There have not been many studies testing this with great scientific rigour (it’s difficult to randomly assign children to an unhealthy, sedentary lifestyle in an ethical way, after all), but there certainly seems to be a positive correlation between physical activity and learning. In an analysis of 44 studies, it was found that all of a wide variety of activity programs improved the scores of children in cognitive assessments, including IQ, mathematics, verbal tests and perceptual skills[2].

Especially encouragingly, it looks as though being active at an early age may even be protective against a decline in brain function later in life. A study of 1,241 people between 62 and 85 years old asked them about their physical activity early in life as well as current activity levels and other lifestyle factors and found an association between men’s youthful activity levels and their current ability to process information[3].

Happily, we’re not stuck with our youthful activity levels when it comes to brain function in older age either. In studies where adults between 60 and 85 participate in exercise regimes several times per week for months to years (depending on the study), brain function was better with increased overall physical activity1. In fact, not only did more active people do better in tests on their memory and learning, but MRI scans have shown that their brains actually have increased volume as compared to their inactive counterparts.

 Now the weather is getting chillier, it’s getting more tempting to curl up with a hot chocolate and do a crossword than to spring out of the front door into the cold and dark. Just remember, these studies show you might have better luck with that crossword if you keep up with your running!

Next time I’ll look at how brain power is affected in the heat of the moment: Long run madness – real or imagined?

Dr Fenella Corrick


[1] Dik, M., Deeg, D.J.H., Visser, M. & Jonker, C. Early life physical activity and cognition at old age. J Clin Exp Neuropsychol 25, 643-653 (2003).  

[2] Sibley BA, Etnier JL. The relationship between physical activity and cognition in children: a meta-analysis. Pediatric Exercise Science. 2003;15:243–256.

[3] van Praag, H. Exercise and the brain: something to chew on. Trends in Neurosciences 32, 283-290 (2009).