How Physical Exercise Affects Your Brain

Have you ever wondered how exercise impacts your brain?

I have, and I’m here to tell you that there are more benefits to working out than just getting leaner. In fact, exercise can help build better brains!

Many studies have been conducted on the relationship between physical exercise and brain health. Healthy, rigorous exercise has been shown to help maintain, and even improve brain structure and functionality. Exercise impacts our health through multiple levels of mechanism, and different factors such as age, gender, and health situation may affect the effects of exercise in our bodies. Let’s dive in and take a look at how exercise impacts our brains at different periods of life!

We know that physical activity helps improve our cardiorespiratory fitness and cardiovascular health, bring down our fat stores, and reduce inflammation in our tissues and organs. Exercise has also been shown to have beneficial effects on cognitive functions, as it improves blood circulation and thus brings down your risk of high blood pressure, which may interfere with cranial functions.(1) Exercise may also work as an antidepressant for some; but acute and heavy periods of exercise may do more harm than good.
Endurance and resistance exercises, such as running and weight lifting, may increase circulating growth factors and neurotrophins, both of which aid brain development and maintenance. These same factors can affect neuroplasticity in both children and adults.(1) Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of our brains to learn new things and adapt to new situations.(4)

The strongest and clearest evidence for the correlation between better brain health and exercise comes from studies on animals, young children, and older adults. One study done with school-aged children discovered that evidence points toward positive cognitive results in children when they take part in sports or other physical activities. Not only did time spent doing exercise not result in lowered academic performances, but some of the most active children have actually out-preferred other, less-active children (the control group).(2) After such a study, it was found that the white matter microstructure in children who had participated in rigorous exercise were increased, while white matter in the brain of the children in the control group did not show any growth. Findings following this study suggested that physical activity may lead to stronger, and more agile cognitive functions due to a healthier brain.(2)

In adolescents, studies have shown that the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) of young adults was significantly higher in active adolescents compared to sedentary young people. BDNF is an essential neurotrophin that is directly related to cognition and neuroplasticity, and works to strengthen neural connectivity. BDNF also helps regulate metabolic functions, and assists in cardiovascular processes.(5) More studies and research must be done to understand exactly what relationships BDNF has with the brain and physical movement; but we do know that it is part of how our bodies keep a healthy brain, and that it increases with physical activity. Since young people’s minds are especially plastic, physical exercise can go a long way to improving adolescents’ academic performance, brain health, and overall life.

The human brain tends to lose tissue from the third decade of life and onward.(3) With this tissue loss, cognitive performance also declines. Previous scientific reviews have shown that aerobic exercise can help reduce tissue loss in the brain in adults and older people. Evidence suggests that physical activity, especially aerobic exercises such as running and jumping, can help protect cognitive function and memory.(3) This can be particularly helpful for the elderly and Alzheimer’s patients. Strength training may provide positive benefits as well, and can reduce risks of Alzheimer’s diseases and other brain-related issues.

There has also been studies that show how physical activity can impact neuroplasticity. A particular study(4) suggests that physical activity can undo some of the neurodegenerative effects of Parkinson’s disease through the changes in the brain made possible by exercise-induced neuroplasticity. Basically, regular aerobic exercise increases the level of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps in the development and upkeep of the brain. Though more research is needed, there are promising studies that point toward the ability of physical exercise to improve and, in some situations, to heal the brain.

In summary, exercise can help keep your brain healthy, and even improve your ability to learn new things, remember them, and use what you know. It doesn’t matter whether you are a grandparent, a businessman, or a young teenager! Physical exercise can help you stay fit and strong, have a healthy brain, and ultimately, help you live a better, healthier, and more productive life.

Here are some action points for you to take away.

Make sure to do at least 15 minutes of exercise every day. If possible, focus on movements that would raise your heart beat and make you sweat. Doing High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) sessions of 20 minutes each, three times a week, may be a great way to get some aerobic exercises into your normal routine.

Keep hydrated, and relax as much as possible. Stress, dehydration, and worry tends to negatively affect your thinking processes, so focus on doing something healthy and productive, and think happy, thankful thoughts!

Last but not least, spread the word! Tell your friend about how exercise can help our brains become more agile and strong, and invite them to exercise with you.

Here’s to building a wonderful, healthy brain!

(1) Di Liegro, C. M., Schiera, G., Proia, P., & Di Liegro, I. (2019). “Physical Activity and Brain Health.” Genes, 10(9), 720. dio: 10.3390/genes10090720
(2) Chaddock-Heyman, L., Erickson, K.I., Kienzler, C., Drollette, E.S., Raine, L.B., Kao, S-C., Bensken, J., Weisshappel, R., Castelli, D.M., Hillman, C.H. and Kramer, A.F. (2018). “Physical Activity Increases White Matter Microstructure in Children.” Frontiers in Neuroscience, 12, 950. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2018.00950
(3) Ebrahimi, K., Jourkesh, M., Sadigh-Eteghad, S., Stannard, S. R., Earnest, C. P., Ramsbottom, R., Antonio, J., & Navin, K. H. (2020). “Effects of Physical Activity on Brain Energy Biomarkers in Alzheimer’s Diseases.” Diseases, 8(2), 18. doi: 10.3390/diseases8020018
(4) Johansson, H., Hagströmer, M., Grooten, W.J.A., & Franzén, E. (2020). “Exercise-Induced Neuroplasticity in Parkinson’s Disease: A Metasynthesis of the Literature”, Neural Plasticity, 2020. doi: 10.1155/2020/8961493
(5) Azevedo, K. P. M. de, de Oliveira, V. H., Medeiros, G. C. B. S. de, Mata, Á. N. de S., García, D. Á., Martínez, D. G., Leitão, J. C., Knackfuss, M. I., & Piuvezam, G. (2020). “The Effects of Exercise on BDNF Levels in Adolescents: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(17), 6056. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17176056