Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is an inborn neuromuscular disorder caused by low levels of survival motor neuron protein, and for which no efficient therapy exists. Here, we show that the slower rate of postnatal motor-unit maturation observed in type 2 SMA-like mice is correlated with the motor neuron death. Physical exercise delays motor neuron death and leads to an increase in the postnatal maturation rate of the motor-units. Furthermore, exercise is capable of specifically enhancing the expression of the gene encoding the major activating subunit of the NMDA receptor in motor neurons, namely the NR2A subunit, which is dramatically downregulated in the spinal cord of type 2 SMA-like mice. Accordingly, inhibiting NMDA-receptor activity abolishes the exercise-induced effects on muscle development, motor neuron protection and life span gain. Thus, restoring NMDA-receptor function could be a promising therapeutic approach to SMA treatment.