Everyone knows that exercise makes us look good and feel good. In fact, Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition at Harvard once said, “The single thing that comes close to a magic bullet in terms of its strong and universal benefits, is exercise (source.)” That’s a pretty strong endorsement, and most would agree. But what a lot of us don’t realize is the massive effect that exercise can have on our brain.
Exercise creates so many transformative processes inside the brain that it can touch nearly every aspect of our lives: our memory, focus, sleep, energy, and mood. Today we look at some of the amazing ways that exercise boosts our brain power and can influence our everyday life experience. At the very end, we’ll also cover some practical suggestions for how you can choose an exercise routine that will maximize your brain benefits. Let’s get started!
Why Is Exercise Important For The Brain?
Exercise does a lot for the brain. On a basic level it raises your heart rate, which increases the flow of oxygen to your brain. Your brain is an extremely demanding organ and requires up to 20% of your daily oxygen intake to function. Exercise delivers oxygen-rich blood, which nourishes the brain. It also stimulates the release of important hormones, which create a fertile environment for the growth of brain cells (source.)
Exercise is also important for the brain because it stimulates brain plasticity. It does this by fostering new connections in cortical areas of the brain. If you’re not familiar, neuroplasticity is basically the brain’s ability to change itself. Scientists now understand that the brain doesn’t just change as we grow from children into adulthood; it continues to change throughout our lives. Why is that important? Because neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to overcome health challenges (for instance those due to aging.) Exercise may help keep brain neuroplasticity in tact (source a, source b.)
In general, exercise affects how well the brain functions, which in turn affects nearly every aspect of our quality of life. Later in this article you can get a scope for just how much exercise really does impact the brain. We will cover in-depth the different ways that exercise influences how you think, feel, remember, and sleep.
What Happens To Your Brain When You Exercise
As you start to exercise, your brain registers this as stress. As heart rate begins to increase, your brain believes that you are fighting or fleeing from an enemy (source.) As a defense mechanism and a protection from stress, your body releases an important molecule called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor.) BDNF has a protective effect on your neurons (nerve cells), and it also helps stimulate the growth of new neurons in the brain (a process called neurogenesis.) BDNF, in coordination with other growth factors, helps improve the survival rate of existing neurons, create new brain tissue, and facilitate plasticity (source.) What does all this mean? Basically it means that as you exercise, you trigger the release of BDNF, which has a protective effect against aging and degenerative health issues (source.) BDNF can also create a reparative element for your memory neurons. It can act as a type of reset switch. That’s why your mind feels so clear and relaxed after working out (source.)
In addition to BDNF, stress-fighting chemicals called endorphins are released into the brain during exercise. Endorphins are your natural pain-killers and are associated with a feeling of euphoria. Designed to help combat discomfort, endorphins create that good post-workout feeling, sometimes called a “runner’s high (source.)”
Another important process that happens during exercise, especially regular exercise, is called angiogenesis. This is the growth of new blood vessels, in this case inside your brain. New blood vessels mean more blood, oxygen, and nutrients are supplied to the brain, which in turn can help your brain function more efficiently.
A number of chemical processes take place inside your brain during exercise. However, what’s truly amazing is how much exercise can impact your brain function when you’re not working out. Here are some of the major ways that exercise affects your overall cognitive ability and in turn your everyday life.
How Exercise Affects Your Memory
Did you know that exercise has been linked to larger brain size? According to an Australian-led study, researchers observed that a group of participants who performed regular aerobic exercise had a larger volume in their hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for memory, particularly long-term memory (source.) According to Dr. Scott McGinnis, neurology instructor at Harvard Medical School, “engaging in a program of regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in volume of selected brain regions (source.) But apart from just making the brain bigger, what practical effect does exercise have on our ability to remember?
A new study from Brigham Young University may have given us an answer. In an experiment, researchers studied the effects of stress on two groups of mice. One group was given a hamster wheel to run on; the other group was sedentary and had no outlet for exercise. The scientists exposed both groups to 3 days of stressful experiences designed to simulate the chronic stress we experience through work pressure or other anxieties. The research team then put both animals through a memory test. After the test and examining the animals’ brain anatomy, it was clear that three days of stress had lowered the effectiveness of the synapses in the sedentary mice. Interestingly, the mice who were allowed to run had a higher memory function and their synapses resembled that of mice who hadn’t been exposed to stress at all. (source.) The results of the study indicate that exercise may help protect memory from the effects of stress.
But what about humans? Is there any hard evidence that exercise affects our memory? In a recent study, scientists at the University of California suggested that even 10 minutes of exercise can increase brain connectivity and aid the brain in differentiating between similar memories. According to the research, a quick ten minutes of light exercise, such as slow walking, yoga, or tai chi, can actually boost memory function. The study administered memory tests to two groups: one who rested and one who exercised. The brain scans of those who exercised revealed heightened communication between the hippocampus (memory center) and the cortical brain regions, which are responsible for retrieving memories (source.)
Some experts believe that this means that exercise may help protect our memory as we get older. In reference to this study, neuroscientist Michelle Voss at the University of Iowa said, “The brain regions involved here are also the regions that are thought to play a big role in the deterioration of memory with ageing.” Voss found the study ‘intriguing’ and called for more investigation into what these findings could mean for older adults. The implications could mean that exercise may help memory remain in tact as we age. It may also help ward off cognitive changes due to aging (source.)
How Exercise Affects Energy Level
It is pretty well established that regular physical activity is linked to higher, sustained energy levels. What’s exciting is that appears to be true across the board, both for healthy individuals and many who struggle with ongoing health issues. Whether you’re a gym rat or even someone who is lacing up your shoes for the first time, you stand to gain something in terms of energy if you get moving (source.)
If you’re someone who struggles with energy, and fatigue is a persistent issue, then exercise could be of particular benefit to you. Researchers at the University of Georgia set out to discover whether exercise may boost energy levels for volunteers who complain of fatigue. They divided the study into three groups: one group that performed high-intensity exercise, one that performed low-intensity workouts, and a sedentary group. They observed that over a six-week period, both exercise groups noted a 20% increase in energy levels. What’s interesting is that the low-intensity aerobic group actually reported 16% less feelings of fatigue. The study indicated that for individuals struggling with fatigue, low-intensity aerobic workouts may actually offer more benefit than high-intensity exercise (source.)
In general, exercise boosts energy because of the combination of benefits it offers the body. Part of the reason is because exercise increases aerobic capacity, which just means it allows your brain to receive more blood and therefore more oxygen. This creates an energizing effect. Another reason why it may increase energy is because of the indirect benefits it has on sleep (which we will discuss further down.) Naturally, the better you sleep, the more energy you will have throughout the day. Finally, regular exercise increases blood circulation throughout the entire body. This can deliver more blood to muscles and increase overall function throughout the body (source.)
How Exercise Affects Focus
As more and more of our mental attention is demanded by cell phones and screens, it’s easy to see exercise as a low priority. For a lot of people, the vast majority of our day is spent thinking rather than moving. For this reason exercise can seem disconnected from our daily grind.
However, research has emerged that suggests exercise can play an important role in helping us stay focused as well as productive. In fact, the impact can be immediate and obvious. A study released by the Journal of Workplace Health Management revealed that employees were 23% more productive on the days they worked out as compared to when they did not (source.) Similarly, a Harvard study concluded that exercise may enhance all of the following mental abilities: creativity, quicker learning, sharper memory, and improved concentration (source.)
When it comes to mental sharpness, a quick workout can be as effective as a cup of coffee: as your circulation and energy increase, your thinking becomes clearer. According to Dr. John J Ratey at Harvard Medical School, this boost in focus also comes with the production of important neurochemicals. As we exercise, we release dopamine, which affects learning and attention as well as norepinephrine, which influences perception, motivation, and focus (source.) Ratey says that this uptick in neurotransmitters “helps us focus, feel better, and release tension (source.)”
How Exercise Affects Mood
Exercise doesn’t just affect mood in one way: it actually comes as a result of several factors working together. We all know that exercise gets us moving--it helps us be ‘in the moment’ and helps our self-image. But on a scientific level, exercise creates tons of chemical changes in the brain that are beneficial for our emotional state.
We’ve already touched on some key neurotransmitters that exercise unlocks. Endorphins, as we mentioned, create a sense of euphoria and a post-workout ‘high.’ Beyond what we’ve already discussed, exercise releases serotonin and dopamine, both of which have a direct impact on our mood. The higher your serotonin levels, the greater your sense of well-being (source.) Serotonin also helps regulate your appetite and sleep cycles, which can have an indirect effect on how you feel (source.)
Dopamine is another “feel-good hormone” released during exercise. It is the chemical responsible for giving us a rush of reinforcing pleasure when we reach our goals (source.) Dopamine is associated with the reward center of our brain and the emotions we feel when we celebrate. Low levels of dopamine are associated with listlessness, self-doubt and procrastination. High levels of dopamine on the other hand are associated with greater motivation and the will to take action (source.) Because of its connection to the brain’s reward center, dopamine can help ‘rewire’ your brain to make exercise a habit. Therefore, the more you workout, the more your brain will seek exercise and the release of positive neurochemicals that comes with it.
Besides the chemical effect of exercise on your brain, consider these other ways that working out may boost your mood.
It Gets You Out Of Your Head — Focusing on the movements of your body can help distract you from preoccupying thoughts (source.)
It Boosts Confidence — Goal-setting is another aspect of working out that can lift your emotional state and activate the reward center of your brain.
It Connects You To Others — Getting outside or in the gym can help you create social connections, which also have proven mood-boosting benefits.
As you can see, exercise creates a multitude of factors that work together to help lift your mood. Along with a healthy lifestyle, a regular exercise routine can help steady your mood and become a consistent source of positive momentum.
How Exercise Affects Sleep
As with mood there are many ways that exercise can improve your sleep. Getting a good workout can boost sleep quality by increasing the amount of time you spend in deep sleep. Your sleep moves in cycles, and your body performs different functions in each stage. Exercise makes the body spend a longer time in a restorative phase that helps boost your immune function, cardiac health, and regulate your stress levels (source.) All of this means that exercise could help you wake up feeling better and more refreshed.
Research has proven that exercise can not only help you sleep better; it can help you sleep longer. Because exercise requires you to expend energy, it also will allow you to spend more time sleeping to recover. According to the Sleep Foundation, a regular exercise routine will help you spend more total time asleep (source.)
One of the indirect ways that exercise benefits sleep is by reducing stress. Anxious thoughts and stress are often at the root of sleep disturbances. Exercise can help combat anxious mindsets, and just 5 minutes of exercise can trigger anti-anxiety responses in the body (source.) Mind-body exercises like yoga may be of special benefit because they help trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the body’s relaxation response (source.)
You may be wondering, how much do I need to exercise to reap the benefits for my sleep? The good news is that people who get at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise could see a benefit for their sleep that very evening (source.) To get the most sleep benefits of exercise, make sure you can find a consistent routine that works best for you.
What Exercises Are Good For The Brain?
By now you are probably well-motivated to get out and hit the gym! Exercise is a powerful fuel for your brain, and it can help you maintain your cognitive function well into old age. To close this article, here are some exercises that may be of particular benefit for your brain.
Endurance/Aerobic Exercises- Cardio exercise is huge, not just for your heart but also your brain. Regular endurance workouts like running, swimming, sports, or biking can help foster new brain cell growth and help preserve the brain cells that already exist (source.)
Strength Training- Weight lifting doesn’t have to be just for huge muscle-bound gym rats. Using moderate weights or resistance bands can have major brain-boosting effects, including improved mood, better clarity of mind and decision-making skills (source.)
Flexibility Exercises- Being limber is something that is always important, but it gets even more important as you age. Flexibility exercises can help you stay more mobile, and it can also give you more energy. As a bonus, programs like yoga and tai chi can also have a powerful calming effect on the mind, which lowers stress and aids in brain health (source.)