Does exercise help your brain?

exercise and your brainYou know that exercise is good for your body but does exercise help your brain? You can see the results of exercise on your body. Your muscles are stronger and more toned. Few of us consider the benefits of exercise on our brains because we can’t physically see the improvement.

Many studies over the years have shown that physical exercise, especially aerobic exercise, has positive effects on brain function. Your brain is a tissue and, like any other tissue, it deteriorates with age. When you exercise, your blood begins to pump and this increases the flow of oxygen and glucose to the brain. The increased flow results in better brain performance.

My friends, who are mostly in their late 50s, have all taken up cycling.  They recently went on a 5-day trip through some mountain passes, riding about 50km a day. I feel as though they have already progressed way beyond the point where I can hope to catch up. However, I am seriously considering taking up cycling, even if I don’t join them on their mountain adventures.  I thought I would do some research into the effects of exercise on the brain to give me a little push in the right direction.

exercise boosts brain powerWhat does exercise do for your brain?

It was once thought that the human brain was incapable of growing new cells. In 1999 a Salk Institute study proved this to be wrong. Since then various studies have focused on trying to find out exactly how the brain forms new cells. What has been discovered is that physical activity can cause structural and functional changes in the brain.

Protects memory and thinking skills

A recent study published on 23 March 2016 in the journal Neurology, showed an association between exercise and people’s cognitive function.  Dr. Clinton Wright of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine,  led the study of nearly 900 older adults. They were given standard attention, memory and other mental skills tests  and they repeated the tests five years later.  Of the group, 10% said that they regularly did moderate to high-intensity exercise.

What was discovered by the researchers was that those who had low levels of physical activity or who did not exercise at all, showed greater levels of cognitive decline over the five-year period.  The difference between the two groups was equivalent to ten years of aging.

A number of other studies have suggested that participation in physical activity delays onset of and reduces risk for Alzheimer disease (AD), Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease and and can even slow down decline after degeneration has already begun.

Fights anxiety and depression

One of the benefits of regular physical activity is the way it makes you feel.  When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins. These endorphins interact with the receptors in the brain, reducing your perception of pain. The also trigger a positive feeling, known as a “runner’s high” that people often describe as “euphoric”. They get addicted to the feeling. You usually feel good for a couple of hours after exercising and more positive about life as a whole.

Reduces effects of stress

Indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep,  helping to reduce stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment. Exercise lowers levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.

Increases insulin sensitivity

The amount of time you engage in physical activity may be important in helping improve glucose metabolism. Exercise is often found to improve insulin resistance in individuals, and also to prevent or delay the onset of diabetes. The effect of physical activity on blood glucose does vary, depending on how long you are active as well as a number of other factors. When you exercise, your insulin sensitivity is increased, so your cells are better able to use insulin to take up glucose.

Reduces risk of stroke and other small-vessel diseases

By improving the health of blood vessels, exercise can help stave off some forms of mental decline. For example, a certain form of dementia occurs when the blood supply to the brain is reduced due to diseased blood vessels.

What is the best body workout for the brain?

Now that we know that exercise is good for the brain, what type of exercise do we need to do and how often do we need to do it? At this stage, the extent, frequency and types of exercise that have the most benefit still have to be defined.

  • In general, any exercise that is good for your heart is also good for your brain. To get the most benefit from exercising, a gentle walk around the block is not enough. You need to do aerobic exercise (cycling, running or swimming) to increase your heart rate.
  • The best brain health workouts use different areas of the brain such as coordination, rhythm, and strategy. For this reason, an activity like dancing, with both physical and mental demands, has a higher impact on cognitive functioning.
  • Have shorter, more intense workouts. Research has shown that working out in short intervals of increasing and decreasing intensity as opposed to long stretches, tends to be better as it feels easier.
  • Exercising in the morning before going to work stimulates brain activity and prepares you mentally for the rest of the day. It increases retention of new information, and allows you to react better to complex situations.
  • Changing your exercise routine from time to time helps to keep the challenge level high and prevent boredom.

Tips for making exercise more fun

  • An Apple iPod shuffle 2GB Silver is a great workout companion. Music takes you mind off your discomfort and it can also motivate you to train harder. Create a playlist of good workout tunes.
  • Exercise with a friend. It’s more fun that way. It also means you are more likely to stick with it because you don’t want to let the other person down.
  • Head outside. For me, hiking up a mountain, cycling or jogging alongside a stream beats pounding away on the treadmill hands down. Nature is extremely therapeutic and you can take in all those sights, smells and sounds around you.
  • Decide what you want to accomplish before you work out and stick to it. Setting a goal can make your workouts fun because it gives you something to strive for. Push past what you thought you were capable of. Reward yourself for what you’ve achieved.
  • Add some variety to keep workouts fun.  You don’t always have to have a grueling workout and it’s better to get some activity than none at all. Keep it simple and get creative.


Overall, exercise increases brain health as much as it improves body health. Research suggests that it improves brain plasticity, function and resistance to neurodegenerative diseases. This is great motivation to get moving.  I will need to remember this when I climb onto my bicycle and start cycling up the first hill.

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