This Is How Exercise Affects the Brain

Exercise is good for the body and impacts our neurobiology. No wonder scientists are digging further into ways exercise affects the brain.

By Kelly Santana Banks
Mar 7, 2023 8:00 PM
Exercise and the brain
Woman doing yoga as an exercise. Learn how exercise impacts the brain. (Credit: Sabrina Bracher/Shutterstock)


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It is no secret that exercise can do wonders for our health. Exercise is good for losing weight, preventing illnesses, improving heart health and boosting well-being. Also, let’s be honest – if you are a workout buff, you know how good exercising feels.

There is plenty of research to support these claims. Still, the benefits of exercising go beyond the physiological effects. Not surprisingly, it also impacts our neurobiology. As a machine working around the clock, the brain bears the brunt of our workout sessions (even though we don’t realize it). So, how does exercise affect the brain?

Read More: Psychedelic Effects on the Brain

How Exercise Affects the Brain

Exercise, especially aerobic activity, affects the brain in numerous ways. Not only does exercise help you fight illnesses, improve your mood and provide a burst of energy, but it works on direct mechanisms in our neuron system to provide us with lifelong health and well-being. While the list of benefits is exhaustive, here are some of the most remarkable ways exercise affects the brain – don’t be surprised by how interconnected they are.

Exercise Improves Brain Plasticity

According to researchers, aerobic exercise and weight training help the brain become more flexible, improving neuroplasticity. Why is this important? Neuroplasticity is the brain's capacity to change or adapt when we learn or participate in something new. Brain plasticity directly affects essential cognitive functions such as memory and learning.

For instance, when you learn another language or travel to an unknown destination, how you assimilate the new data depends on your brain's “plasticity,” which is usually more adaptable the younger you are. A baby's brain, which is in development, is a perfect example of neuroplasticity, for that matter.

Exercise Lowers the Risk of Cognitive Decline and Dementia

If you want to organically sharpen your cognition and prevent cognitive-related illnesses, get ready to lace up your shoes. That is because aerobic exercise puts the breaks on hippocampus shrinkage.

“Exercise can increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and other growth factors,” says a study in Trends in Neuroscience. The BDNF are proteins responsible for plasticity in the brain and supporting memory and learning. This process is significant for older adults, as it slows down cognitive decline due to aging – dropping the risk of dementia.

Plus, aerobic exercise elevates blood flow in the brain, which on the other hand, may prevent diseases like Alzheimer's and dementia. Through exercise, a person increases their heart rate, improving oxygenation to the brain and maximizing oxygen use in cerebral tissues. That in itself enhances mental health.

Exercise Boosts Memory

Another way exercise affects the brain is by helping our memory function. In clinical studies, a group of researchers found that physical exercise leads to structural changes in the brain, including “increased gray matter volume in frontal and hippocampal regions.” This means, exercises support the growth of brain cells in the hippocampus area, which controls our memory and thinking.

Evidence shows that these changes enhance our cognitive functions, including memory, attention, and information processing (also known as executive-control processes). This mechanism of brain function also aligns with a drop in cognitive decline.

Exercise Lessens Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression

If you are looking for natural alternatives to lessen the symptoms of anxiety and depression, exercise is the way to go. Besides decreasing insulin resistance and inflammation in the brain, exercise drives the delivery of growth chemicals that support new blood vessels and maintain healthy brain cells, consequently slowing down damaged ones.

These findings align with a paper about the antidepressant effect of running in the Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology. In the study, scientists suggested that hindering the growth of cells in the hippocampus may be one of the leading causes of depression.

Read More: What is Anxiety and How Can Worries Overpower Us?

But that’s not all. Another study shows that changes in the brain's structure raise serotonin, beta-endorphins and other neurotransmitters. Beta-endorphins are hormones responsible for managing pain and stress. Serotonin is the brain's natural chemical that regulates our mood, among other functions – that happy feeling, perhaps euphoria, comes from serotonin. Researchers see a connection between low levels of this chemical and depression. Like serotonin, releasing endorphins helps ease symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Does the Intensity of Exercise Affect the Brain?

Whether you prefer low, moderate, or high-intense workouts, the benefits of physical activity for overall health are undeniable. Of course, your doctor will be the first to tell. Still, research shows that moderate to high-intensity exercises are the winners in terms of lasting impact on the brain. Thus, aerobic exercise – the one that gets your heart pumping and makes you sweat – seems to provide greater benefits. A body of research has shown that memory performance and cognitive flexibility improve with moderate-intensity exercise, while high-intensity exercise boosts peripheral BDNF and drives cognitive functions. What’s more, the benefits in cognition were substantial in seniors.

Read More: How to Keep Your Workout Routine Into Old Age

Still, it doesn’t mean you should discount the other types of exercise. On the contrary, you can still hack a wealth of benefits from weight and strength training. But how long should you exercise?

Experts recommend 2 to 2.5 hours of moderate activity weekly – approximately 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day– or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (slightly over an hour). Brisk walking, ballroom dancing, water aerobics, gardening and bike riding are some examples of moderate-intensity exercise. If you enjoy breaking a sweat, jogging, running, cycling, jumping rope, lap swimming and martial arts are great options for high-intensity activities.

The choice is yours. Though the literature is full of evidence on how exercise affects the brain, there is no clear answer on which activity is the best. So, the big takeaway here is to get moving. No doubt, your brain will thank you.

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