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Exercise and a Healthy Diet Might Make You Smarter

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If you ever thought your academic or work performance was just a reflection of the gray stuff inside your skull, you're not giving your body enough credit. New Penn State University research shows that getting fit (coupled with getting enough iron) not only builds muscles, but can actually boost brain power.

Researchers examined 105 colleges students for the study, which was published in The Journal of Nutrition. They looked at their iron levels (the kind in your body, not the kind you pump in the gym), peak oxygen uptake (VO2 max or aerobic capacity), grade point average (GPA), performance on computerized attention and memory tasks, and motivation.

Fit women with normal iron levels had higher GPAs than those with 1) low iron and lower fitness, and 2) low iron and higher fitness. The researchers found that fitness had the greatest benefit in terms of improving GPA, but the pairing of high fitness and adequate iron was the best possible combo. Translation: Being fit can give you all sorts of mental health benefits, but pairing it with getting enough iron will give you the biggest brain boost. 

There are a few things to keep in mind: The researchers only studied a small sample of women at one college, which could skew the results. Plus, you could argue that it's not fitness that influences the GPA, but, rather, that smarter women are more likely to work out. Regardless, the study brings up an important point about the value of fitness and getting enough iron for your brain's benefit.

While you might monitor your protein intake or bump up your vitamin C during cold and flu season, chances are you don't pay too much attention to your iron levels. This nutrient often flies under the radar, but it's an important one to keep tabs on. More than 10 percent of adult American women are iron deficient, as we reported in Are Plants or Meat Better Sources of Iron?—and it could be having serious effects on your workout performance and overall energy level. Flaky or brittle fingernails? That might be a sign of an iron deficiency. (Here, other weird signs that you could have a nutrient deficiency.)

So schedule some workouts for this week and stock up on these iron-rich foods—your brain is about to get some serious superpowers. (And contrary to popular belief, you don't only get iron from meat. Here's the DL on getting iron from animal or plant-based sources.)

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