It is common knowledge that exercise improves cognitive functioning, while sitting too much is said to be bad for the body and the brain. But what if we’re simply tapping into different aspects of our intelligence while we’re exercising versus when we’re sitting still? New research suggests this may be the case.
A study conducted at Colorado State University published last month found that moderate-to-vigorous exercise is linked to improved fluid intelligence. Conversely, periods of sedentariness (AKA sitting still) were linked to improved crystallized intelligence. Once again, we’re reminded that life is all about balance—but what do these findings indicate about how we should structure our days? Let’s break it down.
Exercise stimulates fluid intelligence.
Fluid intelligence refers to your processing speed, memory, reasoning, and mental flexibility. This type of intelligence is responsible for those “aha moments.” It’s that feeling when you’re deep in a workout and suddenly something just clicks into place. Maybe it’s the answer to a problem you’ve been stuck on for days. Or, maybe it’s a new way of expressing a thought or feeling that you hadn’t accessed yet. This is you tapping into your fluid abilities.
According to the CSU study, how hard you exert yourself during exercise matters in order to reap the cognitive benefits. Light exercise was not found to boost fluid or crystallized intelligence. Pushing yourself a little harder is the best way to get those fluid abilities flowing.
Sitting solidifies crystallized knowledge.
Crystallized intelligence is the accumulation of facts, vocabulary, and skills that we gather throughout our lives. These are our book smarts, everything we know about a specific topic. You likely have a ton of crystallized knowledge in your area of expertise. Crystallized knowledge is also the reason you remember all the words to that song you haven’t heard in years.
We hear a lot about the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle, and we should take those warnings seriously. However, the time the brain needs to (quite literally) sit with information should not be overlooked. Aga Burzynska, the lead researcher on CSU’s study, told Psychology Today, “Although our earlier studies indicated that the brains of those who spend more time sitting may age faster, it seems that on the cognitive level, sitting time may also be meaningful.”
Structure your day to maximize brain power.
If moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) gets fluid intelligence flowing, we should plan to exercise at times when we know we’ll need to access that part of the brain. Let’s say, for example, that your day requires both research and problem solving. Maybe you plan to sit for the first part of the morning, tackling emails and conducting research. Then you engage in MVPA during lunch and head into the afternoon ready to problem solve.
Of course the optimal time to exercise will be different for everyone, especially since we all have our own circadian rhythm and times when we feel most alert. Equipped with an awareness of how exercise and sitting still impact our intelligence differently, we can make adjustments to our day to maximize brain power. Then there’s nothing we can’t conquer.