You’ve studied hard, had a good night’s sleep, eaten a sound breakfast, and now you’re ready for your big test. You may consider walking to the exam—20 minutes of activity, walking, running, or other exercise, has been shown to increase test scores.
Researchers tested those who got some exercise—usually aerobic exercise like walking, running, or playing—before a test, and compared their scores with those who didn’t get any exercise at all. They found that those who were active scored better on the tests, all other things being equal. Sure enough, the M.R.I. scans revealed that the fittest had heftier hippocampi.
Physical fitness may be crucial for maintaining a relatively youthful and nimble brain as we age, and especially during activities that require higher mental skills.
In addition, studies comparing brain activation in young people with that of people past 40, they have found notable differences, especially during mental tasks that require attention, problem solving, decision-making and other types of high-level thinking. Such thinking primarily involves activation of the brain’s prefrontal cortex. In young people, activation in the cortex during these cognitive tasks tends to be highly localized. Depending on the type of thinking, young people’s brains light up almost exclusively in either the right or left portion of the prefrontal cortex.
Another study is relating the neurological impact of sustained aerobic fitness in young people that is especially compelling. A memorable years-long Swedish study published last year found that, among more than a million 18-year-old boys who joined the army, better fitness was correlated with higher I.Q.’s, even among identical twins. The fitter the twin, the higher his I.Q. The fittest of them were also more likely to go on to lucrative careers than the least fit.
Bottom line—your physical health plays a substantial role in your mental ability—and a morning workout before your midterms or finals—or at least walking to the exam instead of catching a ride with a friend—may do you some good.