Could 6 Minutes of Exercise Per Day Make You Smarter?

Recent research shows that exercise could sharpen your thinking faster than we ever thought possible. Better yet, just six minutes of vigorous exercise could be enough to give the brain a significant boost.

That was the conclusion of one new study, which was led by researchers at the University of British Columbia in Canada. In it, they took blood samples from a dozen healthy adults before, during, and after exercise.

The researchers then analyzed the blood samples. They found that, after exercise, the subjects had higher concentrations of a key brain-growth chemical in their blood. The boost was particularly remarkable after strenuous activity. When the scientists looked at the blood drawn after hard, fast bike intervals, they found that that brain chemical had increased by about four-fold, reports The Washington Post. That’s huge.

So, what is this all-important brain chemical? It’s called “brain-derived neurotrophic factor,” or “BDNF” for short. The importance of BDNF was first discovered in the 1900s. Researchers found that physically active mice had higher levels of BDNF and also tended to perform better on memory tests.

Today, scientists understand that BDNF is what directs the brain to make new brain cells. The more BDNF you have, the faster your brain grows, repairs itself, and develops.

Image by Justin Paget/Getty

And according to this recent study, exercise—particularly strenuous exercise—could boost your body’s BDNF production by up to 400%. (Other studies show that interval workouts may be able to prevent long-term memory loss, as well.) However, it’s not known how long this spike in BDNF production lasts. It may be temporary.       

Some other caveats: It’s also important to note that this is a pretty small study. The experiment only analyzed 12 different subjects — far below the usual threshold to draw meaningful scientific conclusions.

The other trouble with research like this is that the human brain is very complex. Between that and its relative inaccessibility, the brain is quite difficult to study. We can take blood samples and look for clues about what might be going on in the brain, but the brain itself is much harder to measure.

Still, this experiment provides some interesting evidence. If further research can bolster these findings, we may be able to prove that exercise can increase brain function in a very direct way. Who knows? Maybe instead of cramming for tests in the future, students will just bust out some hard bike intervals on the way to class instead.

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