Although you probably know that regular exercise will strengthen and protect your body, you might be surprised to learn that these payoffs can also apply to your brain. While scientists don't yet fully understand all the mechanisms involved, research shows that physical activity enhances cognitive health. The following are a few of the remarkable findings that should motivate you to either recommit to your fitness regimen or get started today.

Create New Brain Cells

As you age, your brain naturally loses neurons, the cells that make up the brain and nervous system. Over time, this loss can affect various aspects of memory and cognitive ability. The good news? Your brain continues to make new neurons, even into old age. Generally, the adult brain produces about 700 new neurons in the hippocampus daily.1 The hippocampus is the brain structure that plays an important role in learning information, storing long-term memories, and regulating emotions.

During cardiovascular exercise, because your heart rate and blood flow increase, more oxygen and nutrients are delivered to your brain, which keeps your brain cells healthy. This increased blood flow creates new neurons in the brain – a process called neurogenesis.2 Exercise increases neurogenesis, which can help your brain function better.1,2 

Protect Your Gray Matter 

Brain gray matter contains most of the brain's neuronal cell bodies. It plays a significant role in all aspects of human life, including muscle control, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, self-control, and sensory perception like seeing and hearing.3 With aging, the brain naturally loses volume and shrinks – a key factor in cognitive decline.4 

A 2019 study provides new evidence verifying the association between cardiovascular fitness and the structure of the brain.5 The study tracked 2,103 adults, ages 21-84, for five years. Researchers gauged participants' fitness levels with peak oxygen uptake measurements while pedaling at various intensities on a stationary exercise bike. They used magnetic resonance imaging to monitor changes in participants' gray matter.

The researchers found that increased levels of peak oxygen uptake – the maximum rate of oxygen consumption measured during exercise – was strongly associated with increased gray matter volume. The study results indicate that cardiovascular exercise may contribute to brain health and slow down the decline in gray matter.5 

Reduce Your Risk of Dementia 

Research also shows that physical exercise can delay dementia and help individuals who have cognitive decline function better.

Another 2019 study examined the association in older adults between physical activity, Alzheimer's disease, other dementias, and cognition.The researchers analyzed data from 454 older adults over a 20-year period, during which time the participants had a yearly physical exams and cognitive testing and agreed to donate their brains for research when they died. They also wore devices that tracked their movement and physical activity.

The study found that individuals who moved more scored better on memory and thinking tests, even if they had brain pathologies that cause dementia. In addition, every increase in physical activity by one standard deviation equated with a 31-percent reduction in the risk for developing dementia.6

Enhance Learning

Although scientists don't fully understand how physical activity contributes to learning, they are discovering that it works. In one study, when teachers added exercise routines to math lessons – called motor-enriched learning – math scores improved faster for the exercisers than for the students who didn't exercise during the lesson.Other studies have found that exercise helps improve reading comprehension.8

When you exercise, you stimulate the neurons in the part of your brain that helps you sort out and understand what you're seeing. Evidence suggests that your visual system becomes more sensitive during exercise, so working out might actually enhance visual learning.9

Sharpen Memory and Reduce Brain Fog

"Brain fog” isn’t a medical condition. It’s a term that describes symptoms that affect your ability to think. You may feel confused, forgetful, or disorganized, or find it hard to focus or put your thoughts into words. Exercise might be one tool to help reduce brain fog.

One study found that physical activity helped participants build measurable increases in the hippocampus.10 Exercise also seems to promote neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form new neural connections and adapt throughout life. One of the key places that happens is in the hippocampus.10,11

Another study showed that individuals with better cardiovascular fitness as young adults had better brain function (memory, motor skills, and executive function) 25 years later in middle-age.11 

Fight Depression and Feel Better

Walking and other moderate aerobic exercise can stabilize your mood and ease depressive symptoms. Studies have also found that regular exercise helps people better control stress and regulate their emotions.12 In one study, researchers concluded that achieving physical activity recommendations – regardless of the amount of time spent being sedentary – lowered the risk of depressive symptoms in adults.13

What Exercise is Best to Build a Healthy Brain? 

You don't need to become a fitness fiend to reap the brain benefits of physical activity. In many studies, just walking briskly for 30-60 minutes, 3-5 times a week, contributed to measurable brain improvements.2,9,10,12 

Evidence suggests that resistance training (pushups, planks, squats, lifting weights) and aerobic exercise (walking, running, biking, swimming) can help your brain more than stretching exercises do.11,12 In one study, older adults with mild cognitive impairment who lifted weights 2 or 3 times a week improved cognitive function, as well as muscle tone.14

Your brain is amazing. Billions of nerve cells work together in harmony to coordinate every second of your life: your movements, behavior, thoughts, memories, and emotions. Even though your workout might be focused on building better biceps or improving your overall fitness, your efforts are also helping build a healthier brain.  

In addition to exercise, consider nutrients to support a healthy brain.*


References

  1. Spalding KL, Bergmann O, Alkass K, et al. Dynamics of hippocampal neurogenesis in adult humans. Cell. 2013;153(6):1219-1227. 
  2. Guadagni V, Drogos LL, Tyndall AV, et al. Aerobic exercise improves cognition and cerebrovascular regulation in older adults. Neurology. 2020;94(21):e2245-e2257.
  3. Mercadante AA, Tadi P. Neuroanatomy, Gray Matter. [Updated 2019 Dec 30]. StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK553239/ 
  4. Farokhian F, Yang C, Beheshti I. Age-related gray and white matter changes in normal adult brains. Aging Dis. 2017;8(6):899-909. 
  5. Wittfeld K, Jochem C, Dörr M, et al. Cardiorespiratory fitness and gray matter volume in the temporal, frontal, and cerebellar regions in the general population. Mayo Clin Proc. 2020; 95(1):44-56. 
  6. Buchman AS, Yu L, Wilson RS, et al. Physical activity, common brain pathologies, and cognition in community-dwelling older adults. Neurology. 2019;92(8):e811-e822.
  7. Beck MM, Lind RR, Geersten SS, et al. Motor-enriched learning activities can improve mathematical performance in preadolescent children. Front Hum Neurosci. 2016;10:645. 
  8. Haapala EA, Vaisto J, Lintu N, et al. Physical activity and sedentary time in relation to academic achievement in children. J Sci Med Sport. 2017;20(6):583-589. 
  9. Bullock T, Ellion JC, Serences JT, et al. Acute exercise modulates feature-selective responses in human cortex. Journal Cogn Neurosci. 2017;29:605-618. 
  10. Erickson KI, Voss MW, Prakash RS, et al. Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2011;108:3017-3022. 
  11. Zhu N, Jacobs DR, Schreiner PJ, et al. Cardiorespiratory fitness and cognitive function in middle age: The CARDIA study. Neurology. 2014;82:1339-1346. 
  12. Bernstein EE, McNally RJ. Acute aerobic exercise helps overcome regulation deficits. Cogn Emot. 2017;31:834-843. 
  13. Liao Y, Shibata A, Ishii K, Oka K.   Independent and combined associations of physical activity and sedentary behavior with depressive symptoms among Japanese adults. Int J Behav Med. 2016;23(4):402-409. 
  14. Mavros Y, Gates N, Wilson GC, et al. Mediation of cognitive function improvements by strength gains after resistance training in older adults with mild cognitive impairment: Outcomes of the study of mental and resistance training. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2017;65:550-559.