Does cardio make you smarter?

The rain poured down his face, blending with the drops of sweat already there. He was halfway through his long run, and his mind was firing away at an unusually rapid pace. It seemed as if new creative ideas were exploding inside his brain with every step. Suddenly, he had it! He stopped dead in his tracks. He could now see the solution clearly. This was how he was going to get his machine to crack the German message encryption. Alan Turing turned around and ran back toward the office – he was looking forward to an all-nighter that could end the war and save England.


Alan Turing

This isn’t a made up story. Alan Turing, the legendary mathematician who invented a machine that could decipher the German message encryption, did in fact come up with the solution to his machine during a run. Turing was an avid long distance runner, and regularly competed in marathons. There was recently a movie about his life where Turing was played by Benedict Cumberbatch. A good watch!


History is filled with similar types of stories. Einstein came up with the solution to his theory of relativity while taking a long walk with a friend and talking it over. He had been pondering the problem for years without being able to solve it. At that instant, he told his friend that he had decided to give up. There was nothing more he hadn’t tried. As the words of giving up left his mouth, the solution hit him like a flash.


Leonard Euler, one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, liked to walk about the city of Köningberg while thinking about problems. During one of those walks, he cracked the Köningsberg bridge problem; to find out if there is a route to take where one crosses each of the seven bridges no more than one time and ends up at the starting point. Solution at the end of the article..


Can you find a path where you start and end in the same place, and only cross each bridge once?

This poses the question of a possible connection between cardiovascular training and intelligence. Whenever I read about successful business people, entrepreneurs, CEO’s, one thing many of them have in common is the love of cardiovascular training. I admit that I haven’t looked for any studies on cardiovascular training and brain function, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it has a positive impact. When billionaire Sir Richard Branson was asked what the secret is to being productive and creative, his answer came quickly: “- work out”.


A follow up question to pose would be if this is good for all types av cardio training? Does it need to be long distance, or could short explosive intervals also do the trick? It’s a well known fact that taking regular breaks and doing walks greatly improves the memory capacity while studying. Perhaps it would be in all students best interest to implement cardio a few times each week. On a personal note, I do find cardio to very helpful for creative thinking. Many of my best ideas have come during cardio sessions or walks.

I remember reading that while engaged in cardiovascular training, the mind is set to rest. This presumably enables the subconscious to roam freely and come up with creative solutions that the normal mind would not have considered, or missed. There could be some truth to that. According to Einstein, the best way to solve a problem is to think about it before you sleep. When doing so, he often experienced finding the solution upon waking up in the morning – a possible explanation being that his subconscious mind had worked on the problem while he was asleep.

With this in mind, consider inverting the question. If cardio makes you smarter – does weightlifting make you dumber? The only two beefy scientists i know live in the world of comic books; Wayne Bruce (Batman) and Bruce Jenner (The Hulk) – and Jenner doesn’t even get beefy until he transforms! How many of the nobel price winners do you suppose regularly hit the gym? My guess is that it’s A LOT fewer than the ones who often engage in cardiovascular training. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t actually think that hitting the gym impairs your brain power. But it’s a fun twist to the question.


Jay Cutler – The next nobel prize winner?

I’m guessing that people who really excel in the academic world usually aren’t drawn to the gym. They experience success in school early on, and that’s what they continue with. The years of high school and junior high also do a good job of putting labels on people. For guys, you might be a nerd or a jock (among other things). Once you have gotten used to being a nerd, crossing the threshold to engage in jock-like activities such as team sports or weightlifting becomes harder. In my experience, brainiacs tend to choose single person exercising more. Running, hiking, etc.

I have a friend who makes an argument that weight lifting and less “nobler” sports are more for working class people, and that the middle class and upper class (who have better educations) choose sports with more sophistication (such as sailing, golf, polo, etc). This in turn produces the over-representation of cardio junkies among successful scientists and entrepreneurs. I personally don’t agree that this is the cause but it’s an interesting thought.


As a student of a masters in technology interaction design engineering, I can safely say that our corridors aren’t exactly filled to the brim with buff people. Since starting  university, I have only had one teacher who I know hits the gym. The other week, we had a teacher with a long pony tail and orange painted nails to match his orange bow-tie. He told us that using degrees instead of radians was a barbaric way to describe an angle. I could easily have pictured him running trail, but it would be hard to picture him in the gym. There are a few guys in my class who regularly hit the gym, but we seem to be an exception. I’m pretty sure I am the only person in the history of the program who competes in fitness. On the contrary, I think almost everybody does cardio!

And the solution to the bridge problem? No such path exists.

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